The Austin police union and city staffers might have reached an agreement in police contract negotiations but that deal is far from done.
Some local activists claim city negotiators granted salary increases to sweeten the pill of additional accountability and have vowed to urge the City Council to vote against the contract. The current police contract was set to expire Tuesday, but the city and the union agreed to a Nov. 30 extension. The union also must approve the proposal.
Austin police officers would get a 9.5 percent raise over five years under the agreement, in exchange for greater transparency, said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. He said a stipend for patrol officers will actually bring the amount closer to 10.5 percent for many officers.
Chas Moore, co-founder of watchdog group the Austin Justice Coalition, said he does not like the police union being able to persuade the city to give officers more money in their contract in exchange for more accountability. Moore said he is concerned that giving officers more money would reduce the funding available for other programs that could potentially improve people’s lives in other ways.
“We have people testifying, saying, ‘Our kids want pools and parks. We want sidewalks. We want lights. We want better transit,’” Moore said. “But we don’t have the money, because we keep putting money into the Police Department.”
Of the city’s general fund this year, 39 percent of it goes to the Austin Police Department, city spokesman Andy Tate said.
One of several changes under the proposed five-year agreement is an amendment to the department’s 180-day window for completing investigations into possible policy violations. Police would still have to finish their investigations of potential misconduct within that period of time, but the clock would start once police officials learn of an incident, not when the incident itself happened, as the current agreement stipulates.
This was a major demand of local activists in response to the 2015 arrest of Austin teacher Breaion King, who was detained in a way that then-Police Chief Art Acevedo said likely used excessive force. Acevedo has said he didn’t learn about the June 2015 incident until July 2016 — months after the 180-day window to complete an internal investigation had closed — so the department was unable to take any action against the arresting officer, Bryan Richter, beyond recommending counseling and additional training.
Additionally, the new contract would give oversight agencies, such as the police monitor’s office and the Citizen Review Panel, more power, including:
• The police monitor could initiate investigations of officer behavior based on nonsworn complaints or without receiving a complaint.
• All recommendations from the Citizen Review Panel would be made public. However, officer identities would be withheld in cases not involving any discipline.
• The police chief would be required to respond to any panel recommendations and those responses would also be made public.
Union representatives ultimately agreed to the proposed oversight changes but also sought more money because of the rising cost of living in Austin, Casaday said.
Austin’s cost of living is 11.1 percent above the national average, according to 2016 rankings from Forbes magazine.
Under the current police contract, the starting salary for Austin police officers after graduating from the department’s police academy is $58,681 a year. By comparison, Dallas Police Department academy graduates have a starting salary of $49,207. The Houston Police Department’s starting salary is $49,917, and the San Antonio Police Department’s starting salary is $47,138.
Both Casaday and city officials declined to say how much officer pay would rise each year under the proposed agreement, but the five-year pay raise averages out to a 1.9 percent increase each year, which Casaday noted is still less than the 2.5 percent increase over one year that civilian city of Austin employees received in the most recently approved budget.
Under the previous contract, police received a combined 5.5 percent increase from 2013 to 2017.
National police reform activist Samuel Sinyangwe spoke Thursday in East Austin about the issue during an Austin Justice Coalition event on police contract reforms.
“It’s essentially holding accountability ransom,” said Sinyangwe, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a national organization that pushes for criminal justice reform. “You’re holding the people’s institution – that the people fund – ransom to get more money from the public, and I think it’s really problematic.”
Sinyangwe and Moore met with nearly every Austin council member in September to lobby for changes to the contract.
Casaday said he did not agree with activists who said that salaries and benefits should not be leveraged against accountability changes in the contract.
“It’s called a negotiation. … It’s not transparency we’re giving up, it’s (officer) rights,” Casaday said.
The American-Statesman has closely followed negotiations between the city and police union officials as they craft a new police contract, which 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.