Thursday, April 13, 2006

Charter amendment would open police misconduct records

I first became aware of the City of Austin's decision to close most police misconduct records after the infamous Cedar Avenue Valentines Police Riot in 1995, when more than 80 officers descended on a junior high schoolers' Valentine party and maced or beat up most of the African American kids there. The episode happened in my neighborhood and involved longtime family friends.

When we tried to use the public information act to investigate records of officers involved in that incident, we drew nearly a blank - almost nothing was publicly available. But if the same incident had occurred involving a Travis County Sheriff's Deputy, we learned, all those records would be open.

Since that time, working with ACLU of Texas' Police Accountability Project, I've seen the same situation continue to thwart civil rights groups and families of police brutality victims who can't get information about controversial cases. Under Texas' civil service law the City can choose to close most records about police misconduct, but more than 2,000 other Texas law enforcement agencies operate right now with the same information public.

Some opponents of the Open Government charter amendment have obfuscated how this key provision would work. The proposed change regarding police records 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. In 2001 then-state Rep. Glen Maxey, now leader of the campaign, carried legislation that would have opened some of these records - the bill passed the Texas House but died for lack of time in the Senate. So these are records the community has been seeking to open up for a long time.

Here's a clearcut summary of the provision on police records from 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 Open Government 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 last year 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.

Most police officers never engage in serious misconduct. But for the few who do, they deserve the same public scrutiny as sheriff's deputies or police in Dallas and El Paso. Transparency, really is all we're talking about. Police administrators would still make all disciplinary decisions, it's just that the public would know a lot more about the outcomes.


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