AUSTIN, Texas  — The May 6 ballot in the City of Austin offers two initiatives, both aimed at strengthening police oversight, with almost identical language in each proposition.

Both initiatives, Proposition A and Proposition B, were placed on the ballot by citizen petition. The first, drafted by the nonprofit political action committee Equity Action, would add some teeth to the existing civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department. The petition was validated by the city secretary in September and placed on the ballot as Proposition A.

That was followed by a second petition drive on police accountability. This petition drive, drafted by a group that identified itself as Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, is backed by the Austin Police Association, the group that negotiates employment contracts with the city manager. The city secretary validated the second petition in December, and it will be Proposition B on the ballot.

What You Need To Know

  • Most Austin voters will only have two propositions on the ballot on May 6, both dealing with police department oversight

  • Proposition A would strengthen civilian oversight of APD, while Proposition B would maintain the status quo

  • The two propositions are the result of dueling petitions that present two options for dealing with police complaints and misconduct

  • Outside Austin, other jurisdictions in Travis County will be considering bond issues and board elections

For most living in Austin, Proposition A and Proposition B will be the only choices on the May 6 ballot. A voter must vote “for” or “against” each one, with the idea that one proposition will prevail. In other areas of Travis County, the ballot also includes bond issues and board elections.

Oversight of the Austin Police Department over the last two decades has primarily occurred in a meet-and-confer process with the city manager. Negotiations are often lengthy and involved, with multiple behind-the-scenes caucus sessions that are closed to the public.

A civilian Office of Police Oversight was established by city ordinance in 2018. In 2021, OPO received 2,239 complaints. Of those complaints, 220 were forwarded to APD for investigation, according to OPO’s annual report. Of those forwarded complaints, 90 were investigated by the department and determined to be a violation of department policy.  

Proposition A, drafted by Equity Action, would empower more external civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department. It also, according to Equity Action, would stop the Austin Police Department from using civil rights as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations for additional pay.

The Austin Police Oversight Act, which would be embedded in city code, would add a number of powers and duties to the OPO: When a complaint is filed, OPO would be given access to all police records, as well as the ability to gather evidence and interview witnesses, all of which is expressly forbidden in the city’s current contract with the Austin Police Association.

The proposed ordinance also will empower the OPO to make disciplinary recommendations to the police chief. The police chief will continue to make recommendations to reprimand, suspend, or fire an officer. That’s state law, but it will require the police chief to respond publicly to OPO’s recommendations.

APOA also gives the Community Police Review Commission, a group of non-city employees serving on an appointed city commission, the right to access and share information more freely. The ability to access information is limited in the current police contract. The jurisdiction of the commission also is expanded to include cases of discrimination and false criminal charges, a problem identified by outside consultants.

The Austin Police Association has filed dozens of grievances with the city, accusing OPO of overstepping its authority and violating the terms of the existing police contract. APA, in fact, won its arbitration hearing on its grievances, setting the stage for the current APOA proposal.

A vote for Proposition B is a vote for the status quo. Under the proposed ordinance from the Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, OPO can continue to make recommendations for policy changes at APD. OPO also can continue to make recommendations to the police chief on disciplinary actions.