Election results: Voters overwhelmingly support civilian oversight of Austin police

Austinites voted on dueling propositions with near-identical language to transform the police oversight office.

By Andrew Weber, KUTMay 8, 2023 9:55 am, , ,

From KUT:

Austin voters have decided the future of police oversight of the Austin Police Department.

Proposition A, which would expand oversight, cruised to victory Saturday: 79% of voters supported the measure, according to unofficial voting numbers.

Proposition B, which would curtail citizen oversight, was voted down by 80% of voters.

The two propositions were put on the ballot via petition, a not-uncommon practice in Austin. They are, on paper, the same — save for one prepositional clause. Prop A was backed by Equity Action, a progressive-leaning criminal justice nonprofit. Prop B was backed by Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, a group that was financially backed by the city’s police union, the Austin Police Association.

Equity Action’s Prop A would give the citizen-led Office of Police Oversight more access to investigations and expand its role in fielding complaints and disciplinary decision-making.

VOPA’s Prop B would limit the office in investigations and its ability to field anonymous complaints. Prop B’s supporters say the oversight structure in Prop A is too expansive and, if implemented, would open the city up to a lawsuit.

The union stepped back from the negotiating table earlier this year after Austin balked on a four-year labor contract.

When it became clear Prop A passed and Prop B failed, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson addressed the tough road ahead on negotiating a longterm contract.

“This deeply felt conversation about public safety and policing in our community has raised a lot of challenging questions and absolutely no easy answers,” he said. “But we’ll keep talking in the hope of finding some common-sense solutions that serve all our community.”

Watson pointed out a bill in the Texas Legislature could invalidate the provisions in Prop A. He also noted some provisions within the measure — namely, expanded access to officers’ personnel files — could be a non-starter for the police union.

The police union said as much Saturday night, tweeting that the structure under Prop A was “illegal” and calling its supporters “anti-police activists.”

“The Austin Police Association is aware of the election results and is taking immediate action to determine the city’s intentions regarding the implementation and enforcement of the illegal provisions contained in Prop A,” it said. “The APA simply will not stand by while this city and anti-police activists operate with blatant disregard for state law.”

Chris Harris with Equity Action said the results were a mandate for more police oversight, and he hopes the union will come back to the negotiating table.

“Any new police contract needs to include the provisions in Prop A, so that it fulfills it completely,” he said. “We’re hoping they return to the table soon to get a new longterm deal that does just that.”

Just over 10% of voters within Austin city limits cast a ballot. That anemic turnout is typical of May elections, meaning just a sliver of the electorate decided the fate of the Office of Police Oversight.

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