FROM OVERNIGHT: Activists call for greater police accountability ahead of union talks


Several Austin City Council members said they’d like to see a fundamental shift in how the city negotiates and budgets police and fire protection, after scores of activists called for greater police transparency and accountability.

Austin is amid labor union negotiations for a new contract with public safety employees. Contracts are typically negotiated every three years, and the new one must be in place by the time the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1. The city budget must also be set by that time.

In sometimes emotional testimony before the council Thursday, dozens of civil rights activists and other community members argued the Austin Police Department should be more accountable to its Citizen Review Panel and police monitor. The panel is tasked with holding police accountable, but critics say its secrecy requirements and nonbinding recommendations make it essentially useless.

PREVIOUS: Citizen Review Panel, once tasked with transparency, mired in secrecy

The activists pointed to high-profile local police controversies, including the shooting of unarmed, naked teenager David Joseph, the violent arrest of teacher Breaion King and others to argue that police force is a problem in Austin.

Speakers said it should be easier to file complaints against police, and to find out their outcomes. Some questioned why officers don’t have to give statements immediately after officer-involved shootings. Some called for freezing public safety budgets and putting more money into social services.

Several speakers decried that residents with felony convictions cannot serve on the citizen panel.

“The people that are dying look like me, but we’re not allowed to be represented,” said Lewis Conway, who served eight years in prison for manslaughter and is now a criminal justice organizer for Grassroots Leadership.

While the comments were ongoing, news broke that former Austin policeman Charles Kleinert could not be charged with manslaughter for the 2013 shooting death of Larry Jackson because Kleinert was serving on a federal task force at the time — a potentially precedent setting determination of immunity.

Numerous speakers demanded that new APD contract provisions explicitly bar police officers from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and one pointed to the Kleinert case to say local police shouldn’t work with federal authorities at all.

Austin police union President Ken Casaday offered a rebuttal to the criticism, calling it based on “rumors and innuendo.”

“I’ve been a police officer here 20 years now and I have never asked someone what country they’re from,” he said. “I’ve never worked with ICE… We don’t work with them.”

He defended the policy of giving officers time to process incidents before giving statements about them, noting that officers, unlike citizens, are forced to give statements about incidents that involve them. He called the existing Citizen Review Panel provisions “a big give” by the union.

“We have made many exceptions in our contract to allow civilian oversight,” he said.

The public testimony came after a presentation to council members outlining the negotiation process and the potential consequences of an impasse, if no contract agreement is reached.

Council members noted that this is the first labor negotiation for the 10-1 council, after the city began electing representatives based on geographic districts in 2014. Council members Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan said they will not support the next contract unless there are significant changes to transparency and accountability provisions.

“A lot more should be on the table than may have been on the table in the past,” Flannigan said. “I, for one, am not afraid of an impasse.”

Mayor Steve Adler suggested that Austin set a fixed percentage of the budget for public safety before working out financial details. Public safety has made up nearly 70 percent of the city’s annual general fund budget in recent years. The council should also take a longer-term look at public safety needs and components, he said.

“We should seriously think about doing this differently and really telegraphing where we’re coming from,” he said.



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