Austin City Council votes to reinstate license plate readers, put Police Oversight Act on May ballot

Austin City Council worked through a nearly 100-item agenda on Thursday. Two of the topics, which have been debated for years, were voted on. 

One was the Austin Police Oversight Act. The council didn't pass it, instead voting to put it on the May ballot. They also voted to make sure officers will have the same benefits through May as contract negotiations happen.

The act started as a petition that got over 30,000 signatures. It calls for civilian oversight for more accountability for police. The Oversight Office would have access to all police records and recommend disciplinary actions.

"While I was protesting on May 31, 2020, I was shot in the eye with a bean bag round by an APD officer. I have distorted double vision, eye pain, loss of field and depth perception, eyelid spasms, nausea, nerve pain, and nerve damage. It is imperative for the council to adopt the APOA with no delay. Basic oversight and transparency should have nothing to do with cops' wages and benefits," one public commenter said.

"Support letting the voters decide police oversight," another said.

One public commenter says he's a retired police officer.

"You have to have at least a member of the police department on the board or on the oversight, because civilians and police officers, they clash all the time, and nothing's going to get done," he said.

"I think there are cops that don't understand what it means to be a cop, which is why we're here today. It undermines the intelligence and fortitude of civilians," Chas Moore with the Austin Justice Coalition said.

Advocates hoped the Oversight Act would pass at the meeting. 

"Let's go ahead and do the thing that's evitable, let's go ahead again and set the standard for what police oversight should be, not only in the city, but in the state and across the country," Moore said.

A few dozen advocates rallied outside City Hall to oppose license plate readers and support the Police Oversight Act.

The council voted to reinstate the license plate reader program after ending it in 2020. 

"There's no example of anywhere in the USA, anywhere in the world, where more surveillance helps Black, Brown, and poor people," Moore said.

"I used license plate readers for half my career catching criminals, and the other half catching corrupt police officers. I'm telling you right now, we need license plate readers. If I can't use a license plate reader, I will get a subpoena for your cell phone, and people don't want that," the public commenter, who is a retired police officer, said.

While the license plate reader program passed, the council voted against a three-minute retention policy. Data will be kept for 30 days.