The Austin City Council voted unanimously late Wednesday to send a proposed contract with the city’s police union back to the negotiating table amid concerns about the price tag and calls from civil rights activists for stronger oversight.
The proposed deal would have provided officers with a 9.5 percent pay bump over the next five years along with a new stipend for patrol officers, which could have pushed their pay increase up to 12 percent.
In a statement Thursday, the Austin Police Association called the council’s decision disappointing, as 85 percent of its members had voted to support the contract.
Police union members will soon vote on whether they want to renegotiate the contract, interim Chief Brian Manley said. If that passes, then police officials would request that the current contract be extended through March 22 as talks continue.
Keeping the current contract for the next few months could avert the possibility that up to 300 officers might retire before year’s end to cash in their accrued sick time, which they feared they would lose if no contract was approved.
Several council members were apprehensive about the contract’s cost, which would have resulted in an $80 million increase in compensation for Austin police officers over five years.
“I started with ‘can I even afford the deal in front of me, do the numbers even work?’” said Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who expressed concerns about the deal’s cost and brought the motion to extend negotiations. “Before I even looked at the transparency and oversight, I realized I couldn’t even afford the deal in front of me.”
Council Members Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter echoed Flannigan’s concerns.
The vote came after nearly nine hours of intense public testimony and debate. More than 150 people had signed up Wednesday to speak, though many donated their time to others.
As the night wore on, both sides demanded a vote from council members, urging them to formally attach their names to the decision.
Mayor Steve Adler asked several times for calm as voices grew loud in opposition to the contract. Small arguments between opponents in the crowd peppered the testimony.
Many held up signs saying “Lies” as police, including Manley, spoke in favor of the contract and explained what might happen if the council didn’t approve it.
“We’re not leaving if you don’t take a vote,” shouted one person just before 11:15 p.m., roughly half an hour before the council voted.
“Take a vote,” another yelled.
“I need everyone to calm down,” Adler shouted back. “We’ve listened since 3 o’clock.”
Some activists wanted a contract that would empower the Citizen Review Panel to examine a broader range of police misconduct allegations. They also wanted firm rules on promotion standards, instead of depending on the chief to weigh an officer’s record. And they wanted all officers’ interviews from internal investigations to be available to the public, even if the officer is not disciplined over the incident.
“We have to have something different in place in this town. The time is now,” local activist Chris Harris said. “This is only once every five years. If we don’t do it now, many of you won’t have another opportunity. So this is your chance, and I really implore you to take it.”
Harris called on the council to recognize that those who spoke against the contract included not just criminal justice advocates, but people who work in public health, mental health, academia, environmental issues and more who came to the council with the message: “We must vote down this contract. We must begin to rethink public safety in this town in a new way,” he said.
The proposed contract includes other changes meant to improve oversight. One measure would allow the city’s police monitor to file complaints against officers, while another would allow citizens to file anonymous complaints.
The contract also would have loosened a rule that currently requires police leadership to launch a probe of alleged police misconduct within 180 days of the incident. Under the proposal, the Police Department would have been able to launch an investigation within 180 days from the day an assistant chief or police chief learns of the incident, provided the misconduct is potentially criminal, including excessive use of force.
The 180-day rule 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.
For policy violations, the proposed contract says the investigation must start within 180 days of the incident.
Police leaders had warned that if the council failed to approve the contract, the department would revert back to Chapter 143 of Texas’ Local Government Code, which would force the department to hire new officers based solely upon test results — rather than a more holistic candidate approach — and would strip some of the oversight provisions in place under the current contract.
Manley said police association leaders will have to decide whether they think further negotiations are the answer, but that decision does not involve him as the police chief, his leadership team or the department.
“My preference would be that we find a way to continue to keep the meet-and-confer contract in place, with all of the gains that this community has really gained through the process that allow us to be as transparent and as accountable as we are,” Manley said.