Battle Lines Drawn in City-Police Dispute
The police union walks away from contract talks, leaving civilian oversight in limbo
The already intense conflict among city officials, community advocates, and Austin police got even more intense last week when Austin Police Association officials announced the union was walking out of "meet and confer" labor contract negotiations with the city a move that could leave the Office of the Police Monitor, pay raises for Austin officers, and APD management tools all hanging in the balance once the APA's current agreement with the city expires next week.
"In light of the current political situation in Austin, it is the intent of the [Austin Police] Association to allow the current memorandum of understanding to expire," APA President Mike Sheffield wrote in a two-paragraph letter to City Manager Toby Futrell. "It is our hope and desire that after this situation has been resolved, the City and Association can return to the bargaining table and work in the best interest of the officers, City and public."
The "situation," according to union officials, is simple: The city, again, bowed to political pressures in directing and negotiating a 90-day unpaid suspension for Officer Scott Glasgow (officially imposed by APD Chief Stan Knee on Feb. 9) in connection with the June 14, 2003, shooting death of 20-year-old Jessie Lee Owens. The chief cleared Glasgow of any wrongdoing for using deadly force and killing Owens, but reprimanded the third-year officer for two APD policy violations parking his patrol car too closely to the car Owens was driving, and "failing to use good judgment" in trying to arrest Owens without any backup.
That decision didn't satisfy anyone: Owens' family was outraged that Jessie's life was worth only three months suspension, while the APA charged that the harsh discipline imposed for two relatively minor policy infractions was proof that Knee and city leaders do not support their police. In a press release, Knee admitted that the disciplinary decision was a difficult one: "I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the volatility in the community regarding this case and my decision to discipline Officer Glasgow," he wrote. Nonetheless, he noted: "As in other situations, I have made decisions based upon the facts of the case." (A 90-day suspension is the stiffest punishment Knee could levy, under state civil service law, without preserving for Glasgow the right to appeal.)
In a Feb. 12 press conference, the APA shot back at Knee and reiterated its position on contract negotiations. Newly appointed union spokeswoman Lt. Kim Nobles told reporters that the union will be there for officers in the event that they "decide to take action to save a life without backup" for which Glasgow had seemingly been punished (although the only life in danger in the June 14 incident, even by Knee's reckoning, was Glasgow's own). The APA "does not believe [Austin officers] should have to choose between saving their job or saving a life," she said a jab directed not only at Knee but also at the OPM's Citizen Review Panel, whose members the week before recommended that Knee fire Glasgow. "[T]his tragedy would not have occurred had [Glasgow] followed APD's policies, practices, and the training he received," the panel said in a Feb. 9 press release. In making this public recommendation, the APA says, the panel overstepped its authority under the civilian oversight portion of the APA meet-and-confer agreement. In the union's reading, the contract gives the OPM and the panel the authority to recommend that an incident be further investigated as the monitor did in the Sophia King case but the authority to recommend discipline is reserved by the chief.
But Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch disagrees. While the contract does not "specifically" ask the panel to recommend discipline, he says, it does "talk about the panel making 'recommendations' and ... responding to the chief after [his] decision. It seems a little ironic that everybody and their mother who hasn't seen the [APD Internal Affairs] file can make recommendations, but that the seven citizens [on the panel] given the unique opportunity to review the file aren't allowed to say anything." Cumberbatch added that in his view, "the panel handled it with dignity."
Either way, it appears that the panel's public rebuke was the straw that broke the union's back: The following day, union leaders informed Futrell that they were walking away from negotiations which have been ongoing for over a year and would allow the current contract extension to run out on Feb. 24. If that happens, the clock would also run out on civilian oversight at least as the OPM and panel are currently set up along with pay raises and other benefits for officers and "management tools" mostly dealing with promotion and supervision that APD brass find valuable. That is, unless Futrell chooses to simply maintain the status quo. "She can do what she wants; she can keep things the way they are," said Nobles. "Really, the ball is in [the city's] court."
Nobles said that union leaders will come back to the table once city leaders demonstrate their support for Austin's rank-and-file cops. It's not clear exactly how the city would "demonstrate" its support to the APA's satisfaction, but leaders have already begun extending an olive branch. On Feb. 10, Knee released the entire criminal investigative report into the June 2002 shooting death of Sophia King a file the department could have released 18 months ago, but didn't, despite repeated requests from both the APA and the local NAACP and other community advocates. City officials argue they weren't able to release the King report because of a civil suit filed by King's family and because of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation requested by the NAACP excuses that ring hollow to many on both sides of the police debate. (The city has not explained what changed last week to make releasing the report OK. The report of the independent investigation into the King case, initiated by the OPM, remains secret under the terms of the meet-and-confer agreement.)
Then, at its Feb. 12 meeting, without discussion, City Council approved $1.3 million for Taser stun guns for all APD patrol officers and new video cameras for patrol vehicles. And on Feb. 15, in response to a specific request that city officials attend a union-sponsored community rally at La Zona Rosa "If they're not there Sunday, they're not there for us," Nobles said at the Thursday press conference Mayor Will Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, Council Member Brewster McCracken, and Futrell all showed up to mingle with hundreds of attendees. Although Nobles said that the Sunday afternoon event turned out "great," the olive branch apparently isn't yet long enough to pull the union back to the table. "This is a really good start," she said, "but we're not there yet."
According to McCracken, that's fine for now. "We were this close to getting a good deal done," he said of union-city negotiations, when the Austin American-Statesman's series on police use-of-force was published in which they made the claim, based on dubious data, that police use force against minorities far more frequently than on whites. "So now we're taking a cooling-off period, and I think that's a good thing."
Of course, not everyone thinks the city should double over in an attempt to woo the union back to the table. It's the APA that's "the polarizing force in the city," said Ann del Llano with the ACLU's Police Accountability Project. Del Llano said the union tricked city leaders into thinking it would be flexible and accept civilian oversight, but instead used its political power to institute a weaker system than was recommended by the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group (on which both del Llano and Sheffield served). Without a contract, del Llano says, the city could easily enact oversight through a city ordinance and then work within state civil service laws to enact a system that gives the OPM and panel more powers than they currently have. The ACLU has offered to help draft such an ordinance, and city officials appear "receptive" to the offer. "What they're doing," del Llano said of the union, "is only going to hurt the officers."