Council Balks at Deadline Pressure on Police Contract

Under the gun

Austin Police Department headquarters (Photo by John Anderson)

In our feature this week on the aftermath of Winter Storm Mara (read more), we note Mayor Kirk Watson's frustration with City Manag­er Spencer Cronk for reasons beyond the unprecedented "ice hurricane." One of those is the apparent rush to finalize a new contract with the Austin Police Association before the current one expires March 31, even though big differences remain between APA and Council over civilian police oversight.

A softer deadline will occur at the end of February, when APD officers eligible for retirement will have to decide whether to hold out and see what happens with the contract. Right now, they can retire with rather cushy benefits, like cashing out the nearly unlimited accrual of paid leave that the expiring contract guarantees, which can equate to an extra year's salary. The union says 200 officers could rush to retire, which is probably an exaggeration as APD admits they have no way of really knowing how many officers will choose to retire.

"The manager's job is not to create a rock and a hard place," Watson said. "The manager's job is to negotiate for a contract that can be brought to the Council that can be adopted with minimal changes, if any are needed at all."

Criminal justice advocates, including those on Council, don't want the looming pressure of an expiring contract to short-circuit Cronk's commitment, so far, to remove oversight completely from the reach of APA, which has agreed to limited civilian review in return for pay and benefits ever since its first "meet and confer" agreement with the city in 1999, when Watson was mayor the first time. Advocates argue that the path toward achieving that goal lies in a short-term extension of the current contract.

Extending the contract for just one year, as the city did with the Austin EMS Association last year, would alleviate the deadline pressure, but it would also allow Austin voters to weigh in on police oversight themselves, which is important to most of Council. Two measures on the May 6 ballot, both citizen initiatives that qualified by gathering 25,000 signatures, raise the question. Council Member Chito Vela has authored a resolution on today's Council agenda directing staff to focus on securing a one-year extension of the police contract. Watson supports the resolution but has proposed an amendment designed to entice APA into signing off on a one-year deal, which they have not been interested in.

The Watson amendment mostly preserves pay and benefit provisions included in the existing agreement, so that officers will not have to fear losing them if they fall out of contract, while adding in a new step on APD's pay scale. It also instructs staff to include an increase to the APD base wage that considers cost-of-living increases and increased "officer workloads," which is intended to increase compensation to officers because of staffing shortages the department is facing. Vela said he will accept the amendment.

“The manager’s job is not to create a rock and a hard place. The manager’s job is to negotiate for a contract that can be brought to the Council that can be adopted with minimal changes, if any are needed at all.”  – Mayor Kirk Watson

Both ordinances on the May 6 ballot are called the Austin Police Oversight Act. The first one was sponsored by the justice advocacy coalition Equity Action. It would achieve many of the oversight goals the city claims to support by codifying them in city ordinance. Council will place the other ordinance on the ballot at its meeting today, Feb. 9; this one was sponsored by APA, through a front group named Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability, which used deceptive tactics to gather signatures in support of its ordinance. The VOPA ordinance was written to mimic the Equity Action ordinance, but waters it down in several critical ways.

Even with these dynamics in play, Cronk has thus far resisted calls to seek a short-term contract extension. In a memo published Feb. 6, he urged Council to let his negotiation team continue working toward a four-year deal before March 31. He wrote that the city's primary goals with a new contract remain strengthening civilian oversight over APD by "incorporating as many of the principles from" Equity Action's APOA as possible and addressing APD's "very significant staffing needs for retaining current officers and recruiting high quality new officers." Cronk argues that a short-term extension of the contract would weaken police oversight "in the long run and undo the very significant gains that the City and our community stakeholders have worked to achieve over the past 20 years."

This line of reasoning is premised on the idea that if the city and APA fall out of contract now, a new contract would never be signed again, and only the even more limited civilian oversight allowed under Texas civil service law could remain. But history suggests otherwise: In 2017, justice advocates pushed Council to, for the first time ever, reject a staff-and-APA-approved police contract. Ten months later, Council approved a contract that included much stronger police oversight provisions.

Cronk's apocalyptic scenario also undersells how much Austin police officers would lose should they fall out of contract permanently. Cronk himself would have full control over wage increases, which would be perilous territory for APA as the city steels for economic contraction and growing budget deficits. With a contract, officers would be guaranteed raises over the next four years, unlike other city employees. Without a contract, the stipends paid to officers for participating in the Field Training Officer program, for obtaining mental health response certification, for speaking languages other than English, and for working evening and weekend shifts would be reduced or eliminated entirely.

"I do not want to see civilian oversight weakened in Austin, nor do I want to impair APD's ability to attract and retain the best police department in Texas," Cronk concludes in the memo. "I understand and respect the political dynamics involved with this situation, and I join you in honoring the ballot initiative process as an expression of the will of Austin residents."

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