Beside the Point: What a Mess

Police impasse throws city system into disarray

Asst. City Manager Mark Washington talks with Police Chief Brian Manley during last Wednesday's City Council meeting to vote on the police contract.
Asst. City Manager Mark Washington talks with Police Chief Brian Manley during last Wednesday's City Council meeting to vote on the police contract. (Photo by John Anderson)

City Council voted to appoint Spencer Cronk as city manager on Tuesday, bringing all but an end to the laborious process of filling the vacancy created by Marc Ott's departure last year. Cronk, who for the past three years has served as the city coordinator up in Min­ne­apolis, will face a series of daunting challenges almost immediately. In addition to hiring permanent heads for a number of city departments (which have operated with interim directors in the absence of a permanent CM), Cronk must also smooth over relations with a ticked-off Austin Police Association that just last week saw council members reject the agreed-to terms of a working contract for the first time since the city and police union first started operating with meet-and-confer agreements in the late Nineties. (Among those interim heads is Police Chief Brian Manley, which means Cronk must consider hiring the union's actual boss – or replacing him with an out-of-towner – while simultaneously overseeing what will undoubtedly be a long and testy negotiating period with a body of cops determined to prove that the city has made a grave mistake.)

So that will be fun, and we look forward to the fallout; and if Cronk can navigate those high waters without crashing into an iceberg, he'll be off to a better start than most anyone could imagine. Of course there's also the outstanding agreement with the Austin-Travis County EMS Association, at impasse until at least next summer after negotiations fizzled over the fall. There was talk after Ott resigned last August that the city would wait to renegotiate new contracts with the three public safety unions until a permanent city manager was in place. It appears that idea has in some convoluted way worked out.

Nuts and Bolts

Also joining the payroll this week are 93 cadets graduating from the Austin Police Academy on Friday. They join a department that remains understaffed by city metrics, and is currently barreling toward unchartered territory for those involved. The perks and benefits that in part brought them to APD will at least temporarily be no more, and they step into a political framework that could change month-to-month.

Nina Hernandez has all the details on what does and does not happen moving forward ("Life After Meet-and-Confer"), with the current contract set to end on Dec. 29. While I agree with those who spoke against the contract last Wednesday that many of the union's concessions were rendered somewhat toothless by the Citizen Review Panel being barred from obtaining subpoena power, there was a significant amount of progress made on oversight in exchange for a solid pay raise: advances in complaint filing; the Police Monitor's discretion to question officers; the CRP's ability to observe interviews; the chief's responses to the CRP now being made public; and changes to the 180-day statute of limitations for disciplining administrative violations that are criminal in nature.

These are advances, more substantial than any others made since the CRP got started in 2001 – and could have served as a strong building block for more progress during the next negotiations in five years.

A Place to Start

Maybe that's the problem: The relative permanence of a five-year plan helped make this year's advances not enough.

When the city started with meet-and-confer, contracts stipulated that each deal would remain in effect for three years. So 1998 was when the first one came, then another in 2001, and once more in 2004. Negotiators agreed that year to step terms up to four years, thinking that negotiations are often tough, and both sides could stand to deal with 'em less often. This year's model was supposed to be the first to last five years. (Four-year terms meant negotiations would be ongoing while everybody was also preoccupied with the circus up at the Lege, a double-booking that neither side seemed to enjoy.) But a lot has happened since 2013, the last round of contract talks, when the only accountability victory, the first since 2001, was that the CRP's letters would become public. Eric Garner was still alive in 2013. As were Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and many others. Police accountability now lives in a new era.

I wasn't here in 1997, but I do know how the Austin Police Department before meet-and-confer was no beacon of great policing – by nearly every metric, worse than it is today. And while I appreciate Manley implying that the cops who come to work on Dec. 30 will do so just the same as they did on Dec. 29, it's already quite clear that body of officers is preparing an enduring campaign to make the city feel the struggles they believe life with no contract will bring. In that respect, I also agree with CRP vice chair Rebecca Webber, who suggested at the group's most recent meeting that perhaps the right way to force a culture change may not involve yanking the rug out from under 1,600 city employees.

So welcome to Austin, Spencer Cronk. Your police union's already pissed, and your City Council wants you to negotiate with them for more oversight and more community policing programs while also giving them less money. You'll have to do that while wrestling with whether to keep the current chief in place – the same guy who the cops kinda like because he started as a patrol guy 27 years ago and somehow made it up to chief – or start over with some new blood. When is it that you start?

“Point Austin” will return in January.

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Brian Manley, Spencer Cronk, Ken Casaday, Austin Police Association, Rebecca Webber

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