Bargaining In Blue: Austin Police Department Sued Over Inaction On Police Oversight And Records Accessibility Ballot Measure
Bargaining in Blue, a monthly newsletter from Ballotpedia, provides news and information on police collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), including the latest news, policy debates, and insights from Ballotpedia’s analysis of police CBAs in all 50 states and the top 100 cities by population.
In this month’s edition of Bargaining in Blue, we examine the accessibility of law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records. We review a lawsuit in Austin, Texas, challenging the city and the police department’s failure to implement provisions of a local ballot measure on records accessibility and police oversight; scholarly arguments about public accessibility of disciplinary records for law enforcement officers; and insights on the topic from Ballotpedia’s analysis of police CBAs in all 50 states and the top 100 cities by population.
In this edition:
- On the beat: Austin Police Department sued over inaction on police oversight and records accessibility ballot measure
- Around the table: Arguments from the negotiating table, scholars, and the media on accessibility of law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records
- Insights: A closer look at provisions related to disciplinary records for law enforcement officers in CBAs and key takeaways from Ballotpedia’s analysis
On the beat
Austin Police Department sued over inaction on police oversight and records accessibility ballot measure
Equity Action, a Texas-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, on December 5, 2023, filed a lawsuit in the 201st Judicial District of Travis County, Texas, arguing that the city of Austin and the Austin Police Department have not implemented required provisions of a 2023 city ballot measure related to law enforcement accountability and records accessibility.
Voters approved the Austin Police Oversight Act, or Proposition A, in May 2023. The act aimed to make officer disciplinary records publicly available and authorized the director of the Office of Police Oversight to access personnel records regarding misconduct investigations, use-of-force reports, and body-camera video records, among other provisions. Since the ballot initiative became effective on May 16, 2023, the city and police department have yet to incorporate certain of the act’s provisions into the city’s policies and collective bargaining agreement, arguing that state law may preempt the provisions, according to Austin Monitor.
Equity Action is requesting a permanent injunction to require the city of Austin and the Austin Police Department to perform the duties outlined in the Austin Police Oversight Act, including making certain personnel files publicly available and creating a central depository for police oversight information.
City Manager Jesús Garza said in a statement to The Austin Chronicle that “whether the historically confidential APD personnel files should be made public–is an important and delicate [question]. For that reason, we welcome the lawsuit. It will allow the courts to weigh in on this important issue.”
Want to go deeper?
- Austin, Texas, Proposition A, Oversight of Police Measure (May 2023)
- Texas judicial district 201
- Police hiring, training, and disciplinary requirements by state and city
- Ballotpedia’s Police Collective Bargaining Agreements Dashboard
Around the table.
Arguments about disciplinary records accessibility
CEO Action for Racial Equity, a fellowship of companies aimed at “advancing racial equity through public policy” according to their website, lists law enforcement transparency and accountability as a key focus area for the group’s efforts. CEO Action for Racial Equity argued on its website that public accessibility of law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records is necessary to promote officer accountability:
[S]ome [law enforcement officers] have been found to have violated policies and the law which can lead to an atmosphere of public distrust. Unlike other professions where disciplinary actions are public information (e.g., doctors, lawyers, etc.), police misconduct and termination records are often obscured by the law or can be difficult to access due to decentralized data at the local, state, and federal levels. In addition, police contracts often provide blanket protections and can limit accountability. These issues provide opportunities for officers disciplined or fired for misconduct to find work in other jurisdictions without knowledge by the hiring law enforcement executives or community members. In addition, police misconduct settlements can have a cost to society and possibly deprive communities of millions of investment dollars.
Journalist Amanda Hernández published a 2023 article in Route Fifty on arguments related to disciplinary record accessibility. Hernández highlighted arguments opposing increased access to police disciplinary records, with claims that it would lead to public scrutiny and threaten officers’ safety:
Some police unions and law enforcement organizations have raised concerns about officer safety and privacy in California and nationwide. They fear that releasing unrestricted personnel records, which may include names and other identifying information, could expose individual officers to undue scrutiny and even endanger their safety and professional reputation.
Austin CBA on provisions related to law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records
The Austin Police Association entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the city of Austin, Texas, on November 15, 2018. The CBA does not currently regulate processes for retaining officer disciplinary records.
The CBA expired in March 2023, prompting Austin City Council to approve a one-year ordinance to preserve pay and benefits for law enforcement officers while negotiations were ongoing, according to Austin Monitor. Negotiations for a new agreement have halted as a result of pending litigation regarding the implementation of the Austin Police Oversight Act and provisions related to the accessibility of law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records and personnel files. Austin Police Association President Michael Bullock argued that “recent developments, including a recently filed lawsuit, have raised questions that need answering before the union will return to the negotiating table,” according to Austin Monitor.
Key takeaways on CBA provisions regulating retention processes for officer disciplinary records
Ballotpedia’s analysis of police CBAs in all 50 states and the top 100 cities by population featured the following information about processes related to retaining officer disciplinary records in police CBAs, as of December 2023:
- There are 13 state CBAs and 29 city CBAs that regulate processes for retaining officer disciplinary records, which may include provisions related to disciplinary record storage, access, and the length of time records must be maintained
- There are 13 state CBAs and 50 city CBAs that do not regulate processes for retaining officer disciplinary records
- There are 22 states and 21 cities that do not have police CBAs
- There are two states and one city in which the request for information on police CBAs was denied or information could not be verified
Produced in association with Ballotpedia
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