Sunday, March 26, 2006

Complaints against police won't be destroyed if charter amendment passes

I just attended a forum sponsored by the Gray Panthers at the AFL-CIO building in Austin where advocates for the Open Government Online charter amendment got to go head to head with two Austin city councilmembers debating the subject for the first time that I've seen. Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerly were there representing city council, while ACLU Central Texas chapter president Kathy Mitchell and Colin Clark of the Save Our Springs Alliance were on the dais representing the Open Government amendment.

I wanted to respond to one misrepresentation of the amendment in particular that I have firsthand knowledge about as director of the ACLU of Texas' Police Accountability Project - the public/private status of police records. As the Texas Observer put it in it's March 24 issue, over the years I've filed "a slew of massive open records requests" with Texas law enforcement agencies, so though I'm not a lawyer, I know this subject pretty well.

Leffingwell rightly told the group that the debate over what police records should be public hinged on an optional, secret personnel file the city is allowed to keep under the state civil service codes - the file is authorized under the
Local Government Code Section 143.089(g). Austin voted to opt in to the state civil service code about five decades ago, but the Legislature gave "civil service" cities the option to close police misconduct records in 1989; Austin and about 72 other police departments immediately created these secret files and began keeping all records about police misconduct in them.

Leffingwell mistakenly told the crowd that if Austin PD couldn't keep this secret file, they'd have to destroy information including "complaints" against police officers and other critical data.

That's not so.
Proposition 1 is carefully crafted to make public only records that state law--including the Civil Service Code--allows cities make public or confidential at their local discretion. It's simply untrue that records about police misconduct would be destroyed if the charter amendment passes. The public would just get to see more of them.

Texas civil service law only governs records for 73 cities, and then only if municipalities CHOOSE to keep a secret file. They don't have to. More than 2,000 other law enforcement agencies including the Travis County Sheriff, the Dallas Police Department, El Paso PD operate just fine with all that information public. Changing the rule would put the City of Austin at no greater disability than those other cities--and gives citizens key information about police misconduct.

Leffingwell tried to say, confusingly, that the city would have to "negotiate" this reform with the police union and that it was too expensive to "buy" that concession from them. The police union could just decide not to enter a meet and confer contract, he said, and the law would revert back to the state civil service code.

That's also incorrect, in fact, his comments entirely missed the point: After the amendment passes, the city would have no authority to maintain that secret file under ANY circumstances when the current meet and confer agreement expires.. The union could choose not to negotiate, it's true,
but that wouldn't change the city's obligation not to maintain the optional secret 089(g) file. Those records would still become public.

Bottom line: These records about police misconduct are public at the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the state. There's nothing radical about wanting them open, they were open before 1989, and the city will face no grave detriment if and when it happens. The only people who don't benefit are scared bureaucrats who want to conceal police misconduct, and a small number of misbehaving officers.

Most officers never engage in serious misconduct, but when they do the public has a right to know what's happening at the police department in their name. Opening up those records is just one of the great things about the Open Government charter amendment, but in my opinion it's one of the most important.


At 11:02 AM, Blogger Catonya said...

Where can someone research the who's, what's, & how's of finding out if a city keeps their PD's misconduct files in a secret file like you described?

you had to know I'd ask :)

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know offhand, Cat, I'll look for a full list. I know Wichita Falls PD is on it, though. :-(


Post a Comment

<< Home