By Robert Kaufmann (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

February 9, 2018; Austin Monitor and Austin Chronicle

As the Austin Police Association (APA) continues negotiating a new union contract with the city of Austin, police reform advocates are asking that the city fund an independent nonprofit to review complaints against the police department.

When the APA’s former contract expired, so did the Citizen Review Panel (see Article 16, Section 4 here) that reviewed complaints by citizens after Internal Investigators reached their conclusions. A coalition of reformers have taken this opportunity to propose the independent investigative nonprofit.

The group, led by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the Austin Justice Coalition, sees the current complaint intake as hindering the investigative process and discouraging complaints from being made. They hope to reform the overall process by taking over for the Office of the Police Monitor (OPM) to take in complaints. Next, rather than the office of Internal Affairs investigating complaints, the groups hope to move that responsibility to an outside party, similar to the city’s auditor.

In making their case to the Public Safety Commission, the groups cited a 2016 report from the city auditor that found the review process had quite a bit of room for improvement. The OPM was, according to the now-expired contract, to have unfettered access to files in the Internal Affairs investigation; instead, they were granted access only on a case-by-case basis.

Whether or not a police department is on the up-and-up, there are without a doubt conflicts of interest when a police department—or any organization, for that matter—is responsible for investigating itself. Even when a city is in charge of investigating a branch under its jurisdiction, it can be problematic. The proposed nonprofit would be a workaround for these conflicts.

However, the creation of this nonprofit would not be without its problems. As made clear by the head of the APA, it is not immediately obvious that the organization would have subpoena power, something that would be essential to the process. The City Council is concerned that the groups would be divorced from the democratic process. Furthermore, the APA representative insinuated that any substantive changes that the union did not like would be taken to court. Finally, this would not be the first nonprofit to receive grievances. The NAACP in Austin receives complaints regularly, yet it has no investigative power.

A third-party organization with oversight powers could be a good solution to the conflicts of interest problems that are tightly woven into the complaint process. It is certainly a difficult problem without any easy solutions. On the one hand, officers should not feel as though they cannot perform their jobs for fear of an oversight process that unduly penalizes them for minor errors or things they did not do. However, the system currently keeps officers who are abusing power in place and discourages citizens from participating in the oversight of the group that is supposed to protect them.

The proposed nonprofit would be revolutionary, but it faces an uphill battle. Right now, it sounds like the group doesn’t have much support from the community at large. A more nuanced approach would be an attempt to address particular aspects of a police contract. The nonprofit Police Union Contract Project has assembled a database of union contracts and made them available to the public. Examining specific aspects of those shows that police officers are afforded a number of rights that are not afforded the citizen population under similar circumstances.

Reform is hard, but nonprofits are leading the way. With deliberate action and diligence substantive reform is possible. It will start with concrete action and informing that public. Then, there may enough support for programs like the one proposed in Austin to take off.—Sean Watterson