Outlook Good for Police Contract
Both sides appear satisfied with the recently negotiated employment contract for Austin police
At press time, Austin police were casting their ballots to determine whether to accept the latest employment contract negotiated between the city and the police union during the months-long meet-and-confer process that ended in August. Officers' ballots, collected by the union, will be tallied tomorrow (Friday), and if the document gets the nod – all signs point to yes – the contract will move to City Council for approval Sept. 25.
In all, says Austin Police Association Vice President Wuthipong "Tank" Tantaksinanukij, the new agreement, which will cover police employment and working conditions through at least 2011, is a "maintenance contract, keeping wages and benefits and working conditions intact" from previous years. Indeed, the new contract includes a 2.5% raise for fiscal year 2008-09, boosting up to 3% next year, depending on city finances, or at least an additional 2.75% if things aren't so rosy. (The contract calls for a 3% bump in 2010 and at least as much the following year, should the contract extend for another term.) While the pay increase is typically known as the "public safety premium," Tantaksinanukij says in truth it's a "cost of living adjustment" and not a pay raise.
Aside from the slight increase, the contract has remained fairly stable, keeping in place, for example, the power of civilian oversight – and, in at least one way, giving the Office of the Police Monitor a tad more control over complaint intake. Previously, a resident headed into the OPM to complain about an officer (or officers) would fill out a complaint intake at the monitor's office before heading down the hall to Austin Police Department's Internal Affairs Division to meet with a detective for a complaint interview. This apparently made some people uncomfortable – complaining about the police to the police will do that to some folks. The new contract seeks to make the experience less anxiety-inducing by allowing a complaining resident to meet with the monitor's office for the intake and initial interview, which is to be recorded by digital audio. That recording will then be taken to Internal Affairs, whose detectives will still be the ones handling any investigation and will be able to contact the complaining witness for any needed follow-up.
This change in procedure is designed to make citizens more comfortable with the process and in general to make the OPM more "user friendly," says Monitor Cliff Brown. The new contract also retools the process for training potential members of the Citizen Review Panel and changes OPM procedure to allow the office's "compliance specialists" – those who actually shepherd citizen complaints through the process – to sit in on Internal Affairs interviews with the officer suspected of wrongdoing. Previously, only Brown or an assistant monitor was allowed to sit in on those interviews.
Meanwhile, the union scored a point that will make it easier for detectives and corporals to move laterally within the department. As it stands, the two ranks are equal – including in pay grade – but officers have not had the ability to move between assignments within the rank without testing individually for each assignment. (Currently there are 288 detective positions and 72 corporal slots.) That doesn't make much sense to the union, and apparently, it doesn't make much sense to the city either.
Still, the cops didn't get one adjustment they were looking for, which would offer some incentive to officers who don't blast through their sick days, forcing supervisors to find officers to cover shifts and, consequently, costing the city money for overtime. As it stands, when an officer retires (or otherwise resigns in good standing), the city pays out for up to 1,400 hours in accumulated sick time. But according to Tantaksinanukij, an average officer may have some 4,000 hours banked in advance of retirement, prompting them to burn through it – by calling in sick in advance of retirement – so as not to lose the benefit. In turn, that costs the city – the officer out sick still gets paid for the day while the city must also shell out in overtime to cover the shift.
Instead, Tantaksinanukij said the union suggested the city offer some sort of incentive for officers not to do that, perhaps in the form of monthly payments that officers would use to offset medical-insurance premiums. Indeed, he said the sick-pay incentive is something that could be implemented citywide to save money. But that didn't impress officials, who turned down the plan. At press time, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald had not returned phone calls requesting comment.
Still, Tantaksinanukij says that the contract is a real win-win. "I think overall this is a fair contract," he said. "This is a contract that belongs to both sides."