City Hall Stands Firm: No Oversight, No Police Contract

City's negotiations with the Austin Police Association hit a major roadblock

Negotiators gather during the Nov. 30 APA/city bargaining session (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The city's negotiations with the Austin Police Association over a new meet and confer agreement hit a major roadblock Dec. 1, after the city announced it was canceling the two remaining bargaining sessions scheduled for this year (and this City Council). For now, the city has taken a firm stance that civilian oversight of the Austin Police Depart­ment should no longer be up for negotiation in each police contract, which takes away a big chip the police union has used since 1999 to trade for better pay and benefits.

Instead, City Hall is adamant that the structure of and powers granted to the city's Office of Police Oversight (or perhaps its successor) should be determined by staff and Coun­cil, in accord with the views of Austin voters. Acting Labor Relations Officer Sarah Griffin called this position, which is championed by justice advocates, a "line in the sand" that the city would not cross. A city spokesperson later told the Chronicle in a statement that "oversight must be removed from the contract" and that the Labor Relations team would resume talks with APA once it agreed.

That day is unlikely to arrive before the next Council – with four new members, all to be decided on Dec. 13 – is inaugurated Jan. 6. Before the Dec. 1 bargaining session ended, APA outside counsel Ron DeLord said his side "would go political" by taking the issue directly to Council and to the public. APA President Thomas Villarreal shared his own frustrations with City Manager Spencer Cronk's decision to draw a red line under oversight. "We are better off under contract," he said, "and very dangerous things are going to happen if we fall out of contract" – which would happen in March unless the current deal is again extended to make time for more negotiations. A tweet from APA offered an even more unvarnished view on the breakdown of labor talks: "Spencer wants to weaponize a system that makes officers political pawns."

The city's goal is to reempower the OPO after the office was largely gutted by an APA victory in arbitration that severely reduced its investigative authority. The union would much rather have reviews of alleged police misconduct be conducted by APD Internal Affairs, which they see as more qualified to conduct investigations, but which also routinely closes complaints against officers that OPO has deemed worthy of further investigation.

As a compromise, APA agreed to a collaborative process in which OPO staffers could join IA detectives and ask questions, but officers would not be compelled to answer them unless ordered to do so by Police Chief Joseph Chacon. The union wants those officer rights spelled out clearly in its meet and confer agreements, while the city wants the scope and authority of OPO defined in city ordinance instead and not subject to bargaining.

There is still time to resolve the two sides' differences on oversight before they enter an impasse, but they're also still far apart on pay. APA's latest offer remains a 20% increase to APD's base wage over the four years of the contract (4.5% in year one, then 3%, 4%, and 8.5%), at a cost of about $87 million. The city has countered with an offer of 12% over four years (4% in year one, then 2%, 3%, and 3%), which would cost about $61 million.

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