Wednesday, November 23, 2005

New Austin charter amendment campaign would open police records

Let the sun shine in! A new proposed revision to Austin's city charter might finally shed light on that city's flawed police disciplinary system. Only a small number of police officers ever engage in serious misconduct, but keeping that misconduct secret contributes greatly to an aura of distrust between Austin police and much of the community.

At noon, I participated in a press conference hosted by the Save Our Springs Alliance (representing the ACLU of Texas Police Accountability Project) announcing the launch of a petition drive to open records at the City of Austin -- of particular interest to Grits readers, the charter revisions would open up more records at the Austin Police Department about allegations of officer misconduct. The proposed change is essentially similar to that proposed by the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability in 1998, and unanimously recommended by the Austin charter review commission in 2002. Here's the summary of the provision on police records put out by the campaign in their section by section analysis (Word doc):
Under the Texas civil service code, which covers records about misconduct for Austin police officers, two personnel files are described. Cities "must,” maintain a file where public records about discipline are kept, and "may" keep a second file where they can store records that become closed (Local Government Code 143.089 a-g). All civil service cities (about 70) including Austin use the two-file system to close as many files as possible, while the disciplinary files of the other 2,400+ Texas law enforcement agencies are governed by the more generous Texas Public Information Act (Government Code 552.108). By maintaining only the mandatory file under this amendment, APD records will be open to the same extent they are presently open down the street at the Travis County Sheriff's Department and in most other cities.
So the new amendment doesn't propose any radical new revelation of police records -- it would only open records about allegations of police misconduct to the same extent as they're presently public at police departments in Dallas, El Paso, and "down the street at the Travis County Sheriff's Department." It's an elegant and much-needed fix -- a decisive exercise of local control to open critical records to the public.

The proposed charter amendment would also make negotiating meetings public between the City of Austin and the police officer's union over their "meet and confer" contract. A new law that took effect September 1 covering most other Texas cities made their labor negotiations public, so this provision just brings Austin into compliance with established practice throughout the rest of Texas.

There are a lot of other great open government provisions in the amendment that I'm sure will be discussed at length in the coming days. And signature gatherers are promoting a second amendment forcing the city to maximally restrict new development in environmentally sensitive areas.

If you live in Austin, look for signature gatherers over the holiday season and into next spring -- the campaign is shooting to put the charter amendment before the voters on the May 2006 ballot. Or contact the SOS Alliance to help gather signatures -- if you're serious about it, they're paying folks $.75 per valid signature gathered.


Anonymous said...

While open government is a good thing in general, the SOS amendments go too far. They include good thing like the ones you mention, but their sole purpose to be perfectly clear is to provide SOS and its lawyers the ability to completely stop ALL growth west of MoPac in Travis County. That is what both amendments taken in concert effectively try to do. To support the first amendment is one thing. To support the second is to support a no growth agenda for Austin and Travis County and to invite the legislature to once again step in and tell Austin where to put it.

Anonymous said...

How does the charter revision trump the meet and confer process?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Meet and confer assumes the two file system presently in state law, so if we say they can no longer keep the optional, closed one, all that's left is the public file. Plus, the amendment restricts what the city can agree to in future meet and confer agreements, so they shouldn't be able to agree to closing records in the future in contradiction to their authority under the charter. Best,