Naked City

Gross Oversight?

After 10 months of negotiation that seemed like a billion years, the Austin Police Association, representing almost all of the city's 1,200-plus police officers, and city management finally shook hands (literally, if awkwardly) Feb. 8 on a contract (oops, make that a "meet-and-confer agreement") proposal that, if approved by the union and the City Council, would leave APD officers about $40.9 million richer by 2004. That's real money, but it's not where the real action (and reaction) is.

That would instead be the agreement's creation of Austin's first-ever civilian review process for its police department -- if you can call it that. Activists say the APA has used the meet-and-confer process to gut and geld the accountability system that Austin really needs in order to protect its citizens from bad cops and police abuse. Given that the union is "asking for the largest non-management raise to any class of city employees in our adult lifetime," says Scott Henson of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, "it's reasonable to expect them to give up something in return." (The raise, say both APA and APD, is essential to make Austin competitive with other Texas cities.)

What makes Henson and others spittin' mad is that the thorny question of police oversight had seemingly been decided. Before the meet-and-confer negotiations came 18 months of work by the city-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group, which painfully arrived at a process where citizen and fellow-officer complaints could be heard, investigated, and adjudged, by both a designated "police monitor" and an appointed civilian review board, more or less in public.

This proposal by the POFG -- whose members included APA President Mike Sheffield -- was at the time viewed as a consensus recommendation, and the City Council duly instructed the union and city management to include the oversight plan in the meet-and-confer. (For the uninitiated, such discipline provisions are typically a feature of union contracts, though such contracts are almost unheard of in Texas; it took an act of the Legislature to grant Austin's police and firefighters the right of meet-and-confer.)

And so Henson and other activists, as well as some City Hall insiders, were surprised to see the agreement call for something completely different. As now constructed, most of the oversight proceedings are performed in private, both the monitor and the civilian panel are appointed by the city manager, and the results of investigations are kept under wraps. "There was no reason for the APA to even be on [the POFG]," says Henson, "if they planned to rewrite the agreement behind closed doors."

The meet-and-confer version of police oversight is more of an adjunct than an alternative to the existing APD internal-affairs investigative process, which makes it at least as bad for whistleblowers within the force -- the source of most complaints of misconduct -- as it is for civilian complainants, Henson says. He is calling for the City Council to reject the meet-and-confer out of hand until it includes the POFG proposal as written. "If they do, I think the police will want their pay raise more than they want to protect the handful of bad cops among their number," he says.

Obviously, Sheffield and the APA -- and the APD brass and city topsiders who shook hands on this agreement -- feel differently. Having an oversight system with public hearings before a council-appointed board would likely make for great theatre, they say, but what became clear during meet-and-confer is that the rank and file would not agree to, let alone embrace, what the POFG proposed. "To have oversight not just in a crisis, but where [officers] buy into the process from the beginning -- I don't think that's happened elsewhere," says Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell. "This has a better chance of being a real force for change and not an empty exercise."

Now is probably not the best time to convince people that APD can agree to effective citizen oversight without being tied to the whippin' post. Between the Cedar Avenue incident (which prompted the creation of the Sunshine Project), the exoneration of convicted murderer Chris Ochoa, the controversy over APD officer and accused rapist Samuel Ramirez, and now allegations of corruption and drug use in the Mala Sangre affair (see p.24), the police are not riding the crest of a PR wave. "It's not the best of times to get ratification from the membership, either," says Sheffield. "When people are disgruntled, everything from the top becomes suspect."

That's true, says Sheffield, even though "this is a pretty good contract. Not a great contract, but a good one, and we think the best we could hope for." That $40 mil, plus pay raise over three years, plus extra pay for certain officers, does come at a price that goes beyond citizen oversight, though. Among the "management gains" over the last (and first) meet-and-confer are random drug testing, an extended new-hire probation period, a new rank that allows officers to advance without leaving street patrol, promotional points for college degrees, and a more thorough assessment for management (sergeant and above) candidates than the traditional civil-service written test.

These may all be consistent with HR policy in your workplace, but the brass are busily autopatting their backs with pride. "Civil service is very old-school," says Futrell, "and to allow these [innovations] is remarkable." (Under the 1995 Legislature's meet-and-confer statute, such changes become amendments to state civil-service law that apply only to Austin.) And APD Chief Stan Knee says "meet-and-confer was long and difficult, as it should be, but it has clear benefits for the community."

For Knee -- and, more to the point, Assistant Chief Mike McDonald, who actually led the APD team -- the difficulty is largely over, though Sheffield still has to sell the agreement to restive APA members who want even more money and even less oversight -- like, perhaps, none at all. But perhaps the hardest job is Futrell's, since she has to find $40 million lying under the city's sofa cushions at a time when City Hall is alarmed about its declining fiscal fortunes. "Some of these salary adjustments would have to be made even without meet-and-confer, and the economic situation is very different today than it was even nine months ago when we started," she says. "We're all in what-if mode, and people are tearing the budget apart 40 different ways to make this work. But we're confident that we can make it work."

The New Police Contract

Highlights of the proposed agreement between the city of Austin and the Austin Police Association:

° A cumulative $40.9 million pay raise over three years, $32.3 million of that in base pay.

° Citizen oversight via an appointed police monitor (in all cases) and a civilian review panel (in certain cases) to oversee APD's internal investigation process.

° Promotion points and incentives for officers with college degrees.

° Random drug testing.

° A "corporal" rank, equivalent to detective but assigned to patrol, to keep experienced officers on the street.

° More comprehensive assessment for sergeant candidates.

° Limits to officer appeals for short-term suspensions.

° An extended probation period for new hires, from 12 to 18 months. (Cadet training takes eight months.)

° Increases to bilingual, swing- and graveyard-shift pay.

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