Community activists are pushing for a plan to redo the city of Austin’s police oversight body as a non-profit, community-driven entity that could take complaints and conduct preliminary investigations in cases of police misconduct.
Austin’s Citizen Review Panel, which was established under a meet-and-confer agreement between the city and the Austin police union, was suspended in January after contract negotiations came to a halt at the end of December with no new agreement in place.
Activists who spoke out against the contract back then had complained that the oversight body was ineffective and didn’t have the teeth to provide real accountability and oversight.
In a letter to City Council announcing the suspension of all activities of the panel at the end of January, Interim City Manager Elaine Hart said “any effective measure of public oversight for ongoing investigations of potential police misconduct is through a negotiated agreement with the (Austin Police Association) that is ratified by both the Association and the Council.”
Chas Moore and Kathy Mitchell of the police watchdog group Austin Justice Coalition, however, say that’s not the case.
Mitchell told members of the city’s Public Safety Commission on Monday that the way forward was to keep civilian oversight out of contract negotiations altogether and to instead establish a non-profit board built and run by members of the community completely outside of the umbrella of the Police Department.
Such a board could potentially take complaints and conduct preliminary investigations to substantiate claims before forwarding them on to the city.
Ideally, Mitchell said, an interim board would be put in place for a year while details about what the review panel would look like in the long term are hashed out with the community.
Members of the public safety commission expressed concerns over legal questions surrounding the establishment of such a board and how its members would be selected in the long run.
It’s unclear what direction or position the city might take when deciding what shape a new review panel could take. That picture might become clearer after Feb. 15, when City Council is scheduled to vote on a stop-gap measure to provide special pay to officers that was lost when the contract expired.
Austin Police Association president Ken Casaday has said the union is ready to get back to the negotiating table as soon as the city is ready.
Mitchell and Moore also called on city leaders to remove internal affairs investigations from under the Austin police umbrella and hand them over to the Office of the City Auditor for added independence.
The commission did not take any action on the proposals on Monday.