Activists' Hopes for Police Negotiations Hinge on Statute of Limitations
Activists call for a police culture overhaul, however hopeful that may be
In mid-August, as the Austin Police Association and the city negotiated terms for a new contract, a group of activists hosted a press conference outside City Hall calling for an end to the whole process. Speakers from the Austin Justice Coalition, Grassroots Leadership, and the Texas Civil Rights Project alleged that the meet-and-confer process (by which the two bodies discuss terms for a new contract) is fundamentally broken, and should be scrapped, reverting police to the terms detailed in the state's civil service code.
The contract language governs a litany of conditions: wages, promotions, hiring, discipline, and – most importantly here – the community oversight that governs what happens when there is an alleged instance of police misconduct, including use of force. That's the language that created the Citizen Review Panel, a group of seven civilians who hear disputed disciplinary cases. Police sources point to the CRP as just one thing the community would lose if this activist bloc has its way.
"They just want to get rid of the whole thing," said APA President Ken Casaday after the conference at City Hall. "As far as we're concerned, they would be really hurting themselves more than they would be hurting us if they did that. Because there's lots of things that they're given in the contract that they would not have access to."
Police in Austin have worked under terms laid out by meet-and-confer agreements since the late Nineties. Reverting to civil service means that officers would lose certain stipends, sick time payouts, and other perks that the APA has bargained for over time. Equally, concessions on hiring and oversight that the APA has made over those years would also disappear, which could affect diversity of officers and erode any transparency we have now.
To the activists, however, elimination of the CRP is a feature, not a bug. Due to the current process, it's difficult for the two sides to agree to anything markedly different from the status quo. And the status quo isn't working, but since these negotiations happen every five years, it's hard to effect change. If the CRP, which relies on the department's own Internal Affairs investigation for information, can't have meaningful impact on APD's culture, what good is it?
"We have met and did not confer," said Lewis Conway of Grassroots Leadership. "Because, at this point, that whole meet-and-confer process is useless. It's outdated. There's no fixing it. And part of that process is the Review Panel."
Civil rights attorney Brian McGiverin said the city must move away from focusing on individual acts of misconduct and turn its attention to overhauling police culture. "If you accept our premise, that there are some critical cultural flaws in the department, then the real task is changing the culture of the department," he said. "It's not just about oversight and accountability; it's also about transparency and culture change."
Their primary target has been the 180-day rule that limits the statute of limitations during which an officer can be punished for a wrongdoing. Early in negotiations, the city proposed changing the language so that the 180 days doesn't get triggered until management learns of the offense. The union has been against that, worrying that management will use it to build bogus paper trails against officers it doesn't like to support a firing. Activists have pointed to the Breaion King arrest, which happened in June 2015 but didn't come to light for 13 months. They note how the interaction King had with Ofc. Patrick Spradlin after Bryan Richter slammed her to the ground during a routine traffic stop – in which Spradlin told King that people were scared of African-American people's "violent tendencies" – could not be dealt with because of the 180-day rule. In a harshly spliced video shown during City Council's Aug. 31 meeting, Casaday is seen talking about King's arrest at a bargaining session – reminding city negotiators that two commanders looked at the case and saw "perhaps a training issue," but no violation of APD policy. Between his comments are clips from the dash-cam footage of King being wrestled to the ground. "It's jarring," said Chris Harris, one of the film’s creators . "But I think gets across well what we're facing with the meet-and-confer process, and why it's pointless to negotiate under current conditions." Supporting that point, albeit unintentionally, Casaday reminded that any change to the provision would cost the city elsewhere. These are negotiations, after all.
And yet not everyone outside of police land is so focused on the meet-and-confer process. The meetings are traditionally not well-attended, though there's been a strong presence by the aforementioned coalition throughout this cycle. While technically public, they're not bundled together on the city's ATXN site. Even if they were, the bargaining process is a long and involved one, not something you want playing in the background over dinner.
Plus, there remains a significant number of advocacy groups who want more cops to receive more money to continue policing the city (and be reviewed for their work) in the ways they traditionally have. The Greater Austin Crime Commission issued its standard "the city is growing and needs more police" screed in the Statesman last week. Reached by phone, two members of the North Austin Civic Association, who were also involved with the Restore Rundberg revitalization project, expressed more interest in the current budget sessions City Council has been working through over the past week, and how it can make it easier for a continued police presence throughout the city, than anything relating to 180 days. The group's president Randy Teich cautioned: It's "a whole lot more complicated an issue than a layman should be trying to tackle."
Casaday remains adamant that the status quo is likely to remain in place. "Our contract is rich in not only benefits for us, but the contract is rich in demands from the city that are allowance that we've taken out of civil service [law] to give to them," he said. "And that's why it would probably not behoove the city or us to not have a labor contract."