Council Goes for Short-Term Police Deal, Ignores Union Noise

One year, last chance

After its brief detour to fire City Manager Spencer Cronk, Council voted 9-2 on Feb. 15 to advance negotiations for a one-year extension of the current police contract so that voters can consider two measures for civilian oversight on May 6 – one from the Equity Action coalition of progressive groups and justice advocates, and the other from the police union. Up until now, oversight in Austin has existed within the boundaries of the police contract, under which the Austin Police Association successfully filed a grievance that essentially neutered the city's Office of Police Oversight.

So the APA really would like to secure for its members a four-year employment deal – the one Cronk negotiated with them – before May 6 that would leave oversight in its current state and postpone the effect of the voters' choice until 2027. By that time, the winning ordinance's two years of protection as a citizen initiative will be over and the next Council (after elections in 2024 and 2026) can amend it as it chooses.

If the progressive Austin Police Over­sight Act passes, it "would go much farther than any type of police oversight system in Texas," said Council Member Chito Vela, who carried the extension at Council. "I think we have to check in with the voters before we do anything else," because if Austin voters say they "do want to lead the nation in police accountability and oversight ... then we have our marching orders and have to get it done."

CM Alison Alter, however, believes much of the APOA violates state law and is unenforceable. She and CM Mackenzie Kelly voted no last week and would rather pursue the Cronk contract and a new oversight ordinance written by the city's legal team. She and CM Leslie Pool are the last members remaining from when Council rejected the APA-approved first version of its current deal, which created a rift that hasn't closed between Council and law enforcement interests. "As we discuss a contract that delivers on police accountability," Alter said, "we must remember that the terms are only real if it is ratified by the APA."

Union President Thomas Villarreal has said the APA will not support a contract that calls for APOA-level oversight, as members feel police already do the hardest job in the city, and these provisions will only make it harder. The union also doesn't want to (and doesn't have to) agree to an extension, so it will apparently fall out of contract March 31, defaulting to the compensation levels and workplace standards found in most Texas police departments. (The OPO would also lose the powers it still has under the expiring agreement.) Officers approaching retirement may have the most to lose – tens of thousands of dollars in accrued paid leave.

Up to now, APA has insisted on wrapping up a deal a month or so before the March 31 deadline to avoid a rush of retirees looking to cash out. "The APA now threatens to instigate the very outcome they claimed [on Feb. 14] would lead to mass retirements, slower 911 response times and increased crime – all because they fear the prospect of facing more oversight," said Chris Harris, president of Equity Action, in a Feb. 17 press release.

Council will consider an ordinance at its meeting today, Feb. 23, that would temporarily extend some of the pay provisions in the expiring 2018 contract, including various stipends and paying out accrued sick leave upon retirement, both important to the APA. At Council's Feb. 21 work session, Mayor Kirk Watson said the ordinance would likely offer a 4% base-pay increase and tiered incentives raising pay each time APD hits a certain sworn-staffing benchmark. And he wants the ordinance to have an expiration date so that neither side gets too comfortable.

CM Ryan Alter, Watson's former staffer in the Texas Senate, wrote the ordinance, which would also greatly expand civilian police oversight under existing state law. The OPO could classify its personnel – like the employees who currently review complaints filed against police officers – as "investigators" under § 143.123 of the Texas Local Gov­ern­ment Code, which addresses how to approach complaints of misconduct by police or firefighters. This language – which clearly vests powers to investigate with "the municipality," not the police or fire department – was last amended in 2007, but hasn't applied in Austin because we have a union contract that addresses oversight.

This response to APA's tough talk is bound to annoy the union, but it's a logical consequence of its refusal to negotiate or read the room. If the ordinance passes, it would go into effect without needing APA's approval, and the APA would have to go to court, not to arbitration, to seek relief from its powers.

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