City, police union, activists arrive at compromise with new four-year contract
After more than a year of negotiations, the city and the Austin Police Association are poised finally to agree on a new four-year contract that appears to contain the right mix of officer pay increases and strengthened oversight provisions. The APA leadership has been working around the clock to assuage membership concerns in advance of their vote (occurring as the Chronicle goes to press) that the contract gives away too much (oversight) in exchange for too little (money). Meanwhile, leaders of the activist groups that have been watchdogging this process are celebrating the hard-won concessions and continue to look ahead to future reform measures.
As part of the contract, the Office of the Police Monitor will be rebranded after 16 years as the Office of Police Oversight. The name change is just a part of a refocus on community engagement as the OPO takes responsibility for preliminary review of external complaints involving the police. The Police Oversight Advisory Working Group found that community members viewed the police monitor as an offshoot of APD, not an independent entity providing true oversight.
Among other changes to the oversight process, the public will now be able to submit anonymous and online complaints. When the police chief disagrees with the OPO on discipline or policy changes, he'll have to respond publicly. The OPO will have access to internal documents when it's conducting its preliminary investigations. Complainants will now get close-out meetings to learn if the officer in question was punished or, if not, why. The OPO will be able to make public its recommendations in critical-incident cases. For its part, APD will stop downgrading officer suspensions and will consider those suspensions when granting promotions.
For Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, the biggest win is the OPO's new ability to publish – without redactions – recommendations in cases of sustained misconduct. It was one of the AJC's priorities that was left on the cutting room floor in last year's version of the new police contract, which was rejected by City Council. He credits the success this time to the crowd (including members of AJC, ACLU, Communities of Color United and a multitude of other groups) that was assembled last December when City Council first considered that contract.
"I think we just stayed on it," Moore said. "And the union realized we had the people power to make this thing go through or not. I really think that afforded us a seat at the table with them, which is something that doesn't happen in most cities. And it definitely hasn't happened here for the last 20 years." If it's approved by the union, Moore predicted, the contract will clear the dais unanimously.
Kathy Mitchell, now of nonpartisan reform group Just Liberty, agreed that the main difference in this round of negotiations is that both the APA and the city finally listened to the community. "We learned that public process is actually not just going through some motions," she said. She acknowledges some activists still feel that the new deal looks too much like the old contract ("that is a valid point of view"), but says that's due to all parties coming to points of compromise. For example, the OPO is still a part of the contract because the city believes it needs to allow for oversight authority that goes beyond state civil service requirements. Activists have long pushed for the city to expand its view of what it can do legally under Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code (which covers municipal civil service) but have deferred their demands that the city take action now.
The APA has also agreed to drop the "no parallel process" clause that prohibited the city from adopting any other vehicle for civilian oversight than the universally panned Citizen Review Panel. Mitchell said the removal of that clause opens up opportunities for the city to experiment: "That's a big difference." She would have preferred that people with prior felony convictions not be banned from serving on whatever oversight group is eventually established, but that was another point of compromise between city and union.
Union attorney Ron DeLord also had positive things to say about the deal, which will provide a 7% pay raise for officers over the next four years. He acknowledged the APA membership's "pent-up anger at what they felt was disrespectful treatment" at the hands of Council and the activist community, but predicted the tone of the discussion would calm once officers had a chance to look at the details. From where he stands, the coalition realized "after [it] killed the contract, there was nowhere to go." Despite that one quibble, he agreed: "It's a good start; we are talking."