Austin’s contract with its police officers is set to expire Friday without a replacement — and the city could lose flexibility in hiring, promoting and compensating its officers, according to interim City Manager Elaine Hart.
In a memo sent to Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council last week, Hart detailed the most significant changes to current practices that will occur after the Police Department reverts to using the state’s civil service laws, rather than an employment contract with the city.
The Austin City Council unanimously rejected a proposed contract Dec. 13. Council members said the proposed raises were too expensive and that the draft did not sufficiently improve citizen access to police records and oversight.
Council members urged the police union to return to the negotiation table with city’s staff to craft a different proposal, but the Austin police union informed the city on Dec. 19 that the union didn’t think it could reach an agreement in the time allotted. Union leaders have said they’re willing to restart negotiations next year.
How a lack of a contract will affect hiring depends on whether and when the city and the police union return to the negotiating table. Hiring won’t be affected until the second quarter of 2018, when the department begins recruiting for its 2019 cadet class.
A class of 93 cadets graduated last week, and the Police Department has already selected its cadets for the upcoming academy class that begins in February. Cadets in both classes were selected under the old employment contract, which meant that Austin police could select candidates based on criteria such as diversity and interviews in addition to a written test. State law requires that they only base hiring and promotions on a written test.
“Without these assessment (criteria), APD will be unable to measure communication skills, interpersonal skills, ability to multi-task in a stressful environment and overall problem solving skills,” Hart wrote.
If the city and the Austin police union don’t decide to renegotiate a contract anytime soon, “the biggest thing the citizens of Austin have lost is the diversity hiring,” said Rebecca Webber, chairwoman of the city’s Public Safety Commission. “That has a greater effect on citizens than anything else.”
Some promotions will be affected immediately. Promotions occur on a schedule at the Police Department, with lieutenant promotions expected to occur in July, commander promotions to occur in November and sergeant promotions to occur in December 2018.
But the Police Department gives its candidates about six months’ advance notice to prepare, so that means that officials will begin the promotion process in January for lieutenants and in June for commanders and sergeants, the memo says. Hart, in her memo, added that the process for commanders and sergeants could begin earlier than June because of a possible wave of police retirements. Austin officers who were already considering retirement could seek to get out now in order to receive their payouts of unused sick time, a benefit that will go away when the department reverts to the state civil service code.
“Without an agreement in place by that time, both will also be conducted under state civil service rules,” Hart wrote. “This will result in an entire testing cycle for the newest senior leaders of APD to be conducted on a written test alone.”
In terms of compensation, doing away with the contract means doing away with certain stipends that officers received for additional education and taking certain shifts. The city won’t be able to continue those beyond Dec. 29 unless the City Council approves an ordinance authorizing them.
Other stipends — for being a bilingual officer or a field training officer — will remain in place, but will be reduced, Hart said. Bilingual pay will be reduced from $175 a month to $75 a month, and field training pay will be reduced from $175 a month to a dollar an hour for each hour of actual training time.
Pay raises that officers receive as they gain seniority will continue under the state code.
Hart also pointed out in the memo that lieutenants and commanders will no longer be exempt from receiving overtime, which will likely result in an increase in overtime expenses as well as a reduction in these officials’ participation in community meetings and events as the department seeks to reduce those overtime expenses.
Hart added in the memo that she’ll provide the City Council with an analysis after Jan. 1 of the futures of the Police Department’s two oversight agencies. It’s currently unclear what will happen to the Citizen Review Panel and the Office of the Police Monitor in the absence of a labor agreement, though officials have said it’s likely the Citizen Review Panel will dissolve.