The Austin police union announced Tuesday it will sue the city to keep its police monitor’s office out of Austin Police Department records and investigations.
Attorneys for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, a union that represents thousands of police officers across the state, filed a temporary injunction Tuesday in Travis County state District Court on behalf of the Austin police union to halt the police monitor’s access to records, including internal affairs investigations, police personnel files and other investigatory materials.
Attorneys say that since a contract with the police union expired at the end of the year, the monitor’s office no longer has legal rights to those records, which were afforded to it under the previous contract.
“It is very clear to me and it is very clear to our attorneys that the city will be violating state law if they continue to have access to officers’ files,” Austin police union President Ken Casaday said at a news conference Tuesday.
The police monitor’s office is a civilian oversight committee that was created in 2002 to assist in internal affairs investigations and instances of police misconduct, as well as to take complaints from people against officers. Its powers were outlined in a contract that was negotiated between the city and its police union.
After the City Council failed to approve the latest version of the contract at the end of last year, the police union backed out of negotiations and Austin police reverted to the state’s local government code to manage its department, which slashed civilian oversight and limited how Austin police hire and recruit new officers.
Attorneys for CLEAT say, under the current state law, the police monitor is not allowed access to police records and investigations.
“The privacy of the civil servants is paramount to that of the office of police monitor under civil service laws,” attorney Houston Tower said.
When the contract expired, police also lost special pay benefits for officers with special skills, training or education, or those who work certain shifts. The city has since reinstated most of those pay benefits, but civilian oversight of the Police Department has fallen into limbo.
Last month, interim City Manager Elaine Hart suspended all operations of the city’s Citizen Review Panel — a volunteer committee that examined cases of alleged police misconduct — but kept operations running for the Office of the Police Monitor, saying it operates under the authority of the city manager’s office and could continue work as normal in internal affairs investigations.
Attorneys for CLEAT and the Austin police union disagree, citing Local Government Code 143, which prevents the release of information from an officer’s personnel file, including ongoing disciplinary investigations.
“While the Austin Police Association believes transparency and accountability are keys to fostering good relations with law enforcement and the community, this intended action by the city and APD will violate state law meant to protect the privacy of civil servants as well as go around the meet-and-confer process required in a current labor laws,” Tower said.
Attorneys for CLEAT say the city has taken unilateral action without coming to an agreement with the police union.
Tower said a judge will still have to hear arguments from both the union and the city before deciding whether to grant the injunction. If the injunction is granted, the office would be allowed to continue work on internal affairs investigations from 2016 and 2017, but it would not be able to work on 2018 cases, of which there are roughly 15, Casaday said.
When asked what oversight would exist in new cases from this year, Casaday said, “Call your City Council and have them vote on your last contract that we negotiated, because there is plenty of oversight in there for them.”
The proposed contract that was rejected last year would have allowed the city’s police monitor to file complaints against officers, created channels for citizens to file anonymous complaints and regulated the oversight committees already in place.
Casaday said the city and the police union are expected to renew discussions regarding the contract this week.
Officials with the city of Austin said authorities are aware of the lawsuit and ready to defend the city.
“Our position on the Office of the Police Monitor has been consistent and we continue to strive to uphold the accountability of police actions to maintain and improve relations between law enforcement and the community. We will continue to operate within the law and the Office of the Police Monitor will continue to carry out its important work,” city officials said in a statement Tuesday.