AUSTIN POLICE CONTRACT: Deadline passing as civic groups wade in

6:28 p.m Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 Local
Austin police officers patrol the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at the MoPac bridge last month. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

11 p.m. update: Sparks flew Thursday night at a meeting of the Travis County Democratic Party as they debated a resolution urging the city of Austin to reject any new Austin police contract that didn’t reform certain practices.

While the majority of those in the room seemed to support the resolution, it ultimately didn’t pass when, after counting the ayes and the nays on a vote to proceed, those leading the meeting realized they didn’t have a quorum.

The resolution suggested, as Austin activists have for months, eight different reforms to the police contract: reforming the department’s 180-day rule, which limits the amount of time the police chief has to discipline officers; eliminating automatically downgraded suspensions; giving subpoena power to current oversight bodies; allowing misconduct to be considered equitably in promotions; allowing citizens to make complaints online or over the phone; allow the police monitor to initiate investigations even without a citizen complaint; stop permanently sealing records related to police misconduct; and releasing records without removing content.

At the Thursday meeting, 46 people voted to proceed forward to discuss the resolution and four voted against, but those leading the meeting said that was about 30 people fewer people than necessary to attend the meeting to have the vote count.

Earlier: Months-long negotiations between Austin police and city officials reached a heightened pitch Thursday as both sides brushed against a deadline to develop a proposed employment agreement.

The stakes were being raised on multiple fronts: Community and political groups, including some leaders of the Travis County Democratic party, were opposing any possible agreement for a litany of reasons — the first time civic organizations have taken a stance on negotiations. At the same time, police warned of possible consequences that could include dozens of veteran officers retiring if no agreement is reached.

Officials were weighing options about whether they would continue negotiations Friday, a day after they were originally set to end, or whether it was time to declare an impasse and begin arbitration with a mediator.

The current contract expires Oct. 31, and the inability to reach terms would make it the first time in the city’s history of deal-making with police that they were not able to develop a contract.

READ: Groups question need for police contract, say terms tamp down accountability

But officials warn the lack of an employment agreement would have serious ramifications for police and the city, including financial and possible public safety consequences.

Among the most dire, union representatives warned that the department would see dozens of possible retirements before the end of the month from officers who stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars in sick time payouts. Under the current agreement, officers are eligible to receive 1,700 hours in unused sick time when they leave the department — a benefit that has in years past drawn scrutiny because of the cost to the city.

If the union were to continue working without a contract, those sick time payouts are likely to evaporate.

Also, a citizens oversight panel for police could have its authority gutted and have less access to officers’ investigative files because officers gave up their right to keep those files confidential in past contract negotiations.

The city also would lose the ability to hire and promote officers based on its own process and would instead be forced to make those decisions based solely on the result of a written civil service exam.

Officials on Thursday were still working through several of the most contentious issues, including pay raises and a timeline for when the department must investigate allegations of misconduct by an officer.

Police had been displeased about the city’s pay proposals for weeks, which ranged from offering no raises but with a promise to keep as many officers as do similarly sized cities, to pay increases similar to those of all city employees.

Some civic groups have also pushed the city to modify a deadline imposed by state law that requires a department to discipline an officer within 180 days of learning of possible policy violations.

They said the deadline became an issue last year in the case of Breaion King, who was violently arrested by an officer after a traffic stop. Former Police Chief Art Acevedo said he could not discipline officer Bryan Richter because he didn’t learn about the incident until a year later.

Some were urging city leaders Thursday to consider another alternative: no police contract at all.

The Travis County Democratic Party on Thursday was set to consider a resolution opposing a contract between the city and the police, saying that “to the degree the Austin Police Department fails to hold officers accountable for excessive force, that failure represents a significant miscarriage of justice not fitting for Austin or any community.”

The proposed resolution also said the department lacks transparency in the disciplinary process, which contributes to a lack of community trust, and called upon the city to reject the contract until it includes national best practices for policing and police contracts.

Other groups, including the Austin Justice Coalition, have sat in on the negotiations and also do not think Austin taxpayers are getting enough benefit from the contracts.

“If they aren’t going to get the bang for the buck, then by all means they shouldn’t be doing it,” said Chas Moore, the director of the coalition.

Even if city representatives and police strike a deal, any contract must be approved by the Austin City Council.

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