Meet-and-Confer Draws Fire
Council takes a deep breath, gets reassurances from staff about police contract
The City Council did not, as originally scheduled, vote last week on its proposed meet-and-confer labor agreement with the Austin Police Association instead devoting time at the Thursday meeting ruminating over issues raised by the complicated and increasingly controversial contract. The APA membership will complete its vote on the agreement March 23; assuming the union OKs the deal, as seems likely, council will vote at its March 25 meeting. If approved by both sides, the new agreement will take effect immediately, just in time to replace the outgoing meet-and-confer contract, which expires March 26.
The contract must be approved or rejected in its entirety by both sides, without amendments which made the City Council's approval of the deal so seemingly assured that it had been posted on the March 11 consent agenda. But amid protests from police accountability advocates about seemingly dramatic changes to the citizen oversight provisions, as well as concerns about the agreement's cost to the cash-strapped city, council members opted instead for delay and were treated to a lengthy set of reassurances from City Manager Toby Futrell, APD Chief Stan Knee, and their respective management teams, that the agreement was not the uniquely raw deal for the city depicted by its critics.
In the view of city staff, many of the complaints about the contract's effect on the Office of the Police Monitor and its citizens review panel are based on a misunderstanding: that provisions that were spelled out in the prior deal, which created the OPM and panel, but are not in the proposed agreement have thus been eliminated. "One of the things that we have done in this contract is to strip out all of the administrative detail that bound the police monitor's ability to simply manage the function," Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman told the council. "But in the absence of that detail, we are getting a lot of questions about how those processes work." Many of those questions came from the ACLU Police Accountability Project, the leading advocates for police oversight since the late 1990s; the ACLU's Ann del Llano last week termed the new agreement "ludicrous" and "evil."
But Huffman says that many of the ACLU concerns are simply misplaced; the citizen oversight process remains largely unchanged, and many of the changes could actually benefit citizen complainants. The city has made available (online at www.cityofaustin.org) both a Q&A document responding to the ACLU's and others' questions, and a new draft of standard operating procedures for the OPM the latter being where some of the oversight provisions formerly in the contract itself are now addressed. Whether, if push comes to shove, the OPM and citizen review panel really are as free to operate under this contract as they were before remains to be seen. The contract does, however, provide that, if the oversight process in a particular case is stopped by legal action presumably by the APA such disputes will be resolved quickly and won't allow the union to run out the 180-day clock set by state law for APD to discipline an errant officer.
The council itself appeared untroubled by the changes, or lack thereof, to the OPM's operations, but was more interested in the contract's expansion of the rights of officers to see evidence against them. Under the new agreement, officers accused of misconduct will have access to more information before they make their own statement to Internal Affairs investigators and again if and when Knee hands down discipline than is currently the case. However, said Knee, critics are wrong to claim that officers will be able to see all the evidence against them; he termed the change "rather less significant than some people have indicated." He added that officers already must agree to not share that information with others, or use it to retaliate against complainants in any way, under threat of dismissal.
Knee's downplaying of the new officers' rights was echoed from the dais by Brewster McCracken, a former Houston prosecutor, who noted that criminal defendants including officers indicted for misconduct already have access to far more evidence against them than is allowed under the new meet-and-confer contract. "Our officers still have less rights in [an] Internal Affairs [probe] than they would in a criminal investigation," he said. "I don't consider this agreement to be that controversial. ... We've reached a fair compromise."
McCracken also recalled his Houston experience where ill-trained Harris Co. law enforcers "charged people with things that weren't even crimes" in endorsing the generous financial benefits for officers in both the old and new agreements, which he said allowed Austin to have a better-educated and more professional police force. The incentives for education and longevity, along with the contract's "public safety premium" guaranteeing officers a 2% raise over and above whatever raises are offered to city employees across the board have led to public speculation (most notably in the Statesman) that this contract, like the last one, will force the city to again live beyond its means. This prompted Mayor Will Wynn to ask point-blank if this contract can be funded without a property-tax increase. The answer? Yes, assuming tax collections don't fall further into the tank.
Given that, no matter how you read its numbers, the new contract will be significantly cheaper for the city (43%, says City Hall) than the expiring deal, it's curious that so much attention has been given to its fiscal side. Lest this be seen as a case of buyers' remorse from a city that asked few questions last time around about the amount of money spent on public safety, Futrell emphasized that she has no regrets. Citing crime figures, she noted that "our investment strategy in police is producing the very best outcome of any major city in Texas. And that's the strategy we're pursuing now."