Members of the Austin police union began voting Sunday on the officers’ proposed employment contract, and the results of the weeklong process will determine whether the proposal goes to the City Council for a vote.
The proposal, which would raise officers’ base pay 9.5 percent, is the culmination of nine months of negotiations between city officials and the union, and both sides say the document enhances the Police Department’s transparency with the community. However, several Austin criminal justice activists are urging city officials not to support it because they don’t think the contract was significantly improved.
The union vote will close Friday, and top union officials are encouraging members to vote yes. If the union votes it down, city officials could either choose to go back to the negotiating table or let the contract expire. If the union votes for it, the proposal will go to the City Council on Dec. 7 to be either implemented or voted down.
Andrew Romero, the police union’s appointed vice president, told the city’s Public Safety Commission last week that he and union President Ken Casaday have been “working tirelessly” since the tentative agreement was reached to explain to officers why they should vote yes on the new contract.
“A lot of them feel like it’s not in their best interest to do that,” Romero told the commission. “But when we walk them through these scenarios, and we walk them through the importance of these issues to the community, I’ve been really happy to see that officers are starting to understand the value of these. Contrary to what is sometimes said in the public, the association and the police officers of this city do not want bad cops to be on the job.”
Despite their opposition to the tentative police contract, activists have said they are pleased with two major changes being proposed.
First, people could make an anonymous complaint about one or more officers’ conduct to the police monitor’s office, instead of having to make a sworn statement, as required under the current contract.
Second, the new contract would make changes to civil service laws that give police officials only 180 days to suspend officers being investigated for possible criminal misconduct, starting from the day of the misconduct. The new contract says police officials have 180 days to suspend an officer starting from the day the possible criminal misconduct is discovered by a police chief or assistant chief, even if criminal charges were not filed. This includes excessive use of force.
However, when it comes to policy violations in which officers are not believed to have a committed a crime, officials would still have only 180 days from the day the policy violation happened to suspend an officer.
Overall, activists said, these changes are not enough.
“We think there are still areas for improvement,” Matt Simpson, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, told the city’s Public Safety Commission last week.
Simpson said the city’s civilian review panel, which examines critical police incidents such as officer-involved shootings and makes recommendations to the police chief about the way they were handled, should be able to conduct independent investigations and should have subpoena powers. City officials said they don’t think they can give the panel that power under current state laws.
Kathy Mitchell, with the Austin Justice Coalition, said more could be done in terms of making disciplinary records public.
Chas Moore, also with the Austin Justice Coalition, has previously said he is frustrated that police were able to leverage higher raises as they made these transparency concessions.
“We have people testifying, saying, ‘Our kids want pools and parks. We want sidewalks. We want lights. We want better transit,’ ” Moore has said. “But we don’t have the money, because we keep putting money into the Police Department.”
Larry Watts, with the city’s Labor Relations Department, said if officials count new stipends offered in the proposed contract, the Police Department would receive a 12 percent raise under the proposed contract. That doesn’t count the increase in wages officers receive as they gain seniority.
Casaday said the new stipends encourage more senior police officers to return to patrol shifts. That means officers with more experience would be interacting with people on the street, which he said would probably improve the interactions the community has with patrol officers.
“I don’t think we could add anything to this contract where the Austin Justice Coalition would be satisfied,” Casaday said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the proposed base pay amount increase.
THE STORY SO FAR
The American-Statesman has been following closely the negotiations between the city and the unions representing Austin’s three main public safety agencies — police, fire and Emergency Medical Services — as they craft new work contracts. Last month, Austin officials and the Police Department came to a tentative agreement that establishes pay raises and certain benefits, as well as concessions related to oversight and hiring. This story is part of the Statesman’s continuing focus on public safety and taxpayer dollars.