by Douglas Ankney
The group “Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability” (VOPA) apparently amassed the 25,000 signatures needed in Austin, Texas, to have a referendum entitled “Austin Police Oversight Act” added to the ballot. But there was already an “Austin Police Oversight Act” on the ballot seeking to open police records to public access and to give the city’s office of police oversight an active role in the investigations of officer misconduct.
However, the VOPA version differed in two significant ways: (1) it was funded almost entirely by a police union – the Austin Police Association had contributed nearly every penny of the campaign’s $300,000 and (2) the VOPA version would keep particular misconduct records hidden from public eyes and give the board only a passive role in investigations.
Austin is not an outlier. In January 2023, a city councilor in Albuquerque, New Mexico, proposed abolishing the oversight board to replace it with a smaller, less powerful civilian panel. A state legislator told the Albuquerque Journal it was a “done deal.” Abigail Cerra, former chairperson of the Minneapolis Police Oversight Commission, acknowledged the importance of oversight groups as an important check on police authority: “Without any such check or oversight, people like Derek Chauvin [the officer who murdered George Floyd] are allowed to abuse their position with impunity.”
Minneapolis was another one of the cities where the oversight structure was weakened in the past few months, prompting Cerra to resign in frustration. She said that a weakened board “can lull people into thinking there is some level of accountability when there isn’t.”
Police unions also undermine the authority of oversight agencies by having allies elected to fill vacant board positions. Chicago’s WBEZ reported in January 2023 that the largest local police union is spending money “in an attempt to extend the union’s power into a domain created specifically to oversee the officers who make up the union’s membership.”
The Executive Director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Pasco, strongly opposes oversight boards, believing civilians don’t have the knowledge to evaluate police actions. “It would be akin to putting a plumber in charge of the investigation of airplane crashes,” said Pasco.
Yet, it is this author’s observation that while most civilians are not plumbers, the majority can discern if the toilet is working properly or not.
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