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Police contract with city heads to vote

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 by Jo Clifton

If an agreement finalized between the city and the Austin Police Association on Tuesday is adopted, the Office of the Police Monitor will have more power to investigate allegations of police misconduct and Austin police will get a 9.5 percent wage increase over a five-year period.

The union will vote on the contract in mid-November and City Council will vote on it in December, according to APA President Ken Casaday. The current contract expires on Oct. 31, but Casaday said the parties had agreed to extend the current contract until they had time to vote on it.

Activists have lobbied for changes to the contract to make it easier for the public to file complaints and for police investigators to determine the validity of those complaints.

It is important to note that the city’s negotiators argued in favor of most of the changes the activists were seeking. With this contract, the activists have apparently achieved many of their goals.

The city’s Interim Labor Relations Officer Larry Watts told The Austin Chronicle, “I give (the APA) much credit for having listened to the community and … our negotiating team, and having made what I would call significant concessions regarding state law that allows the city to do more things than would otherwise be the case.”

One of the most important changes in the proposed contract is the revision of the 180-day rule. In the past, police investigators have had just 180 days from the date of an alleged incident to discipline an officer who has violated the law or department policy.

A prime example of problems caused by the old rule is the case of teacher Breaion King, who was brutally removed from her car and thrown to the ground by an officer during a 2015 traffic stop. Because police investigators did not find out about the case until more than 180 days had passed, there was nothing the Austin Police Department could do to discipline the officer.

The new contract provides that the clock will start ticking on disciplinary action only after the alleged offense is discovered by an assistant chief.

Activists have also lobbied to allow the Office of the Police Monitor to be able to initiate investigations even if a citizen has not filed a complaint. Under the new agreement, citizens will be able to make complaints either anonymously or by phone or online.

“It’s our position and the city’s position that almost all of the requests made by the outside groups are addressed in this contract,” according to APA Vice President Andrew Romero.

“The only issue that we have not addressed that is on that list” is with the Citizen Review Panel having the authority to issue subpoenas, he continued.

Activists requested that discipline rules be changed so that suspensions could not be reduced to a written reprimand after passage of two years of service. According to Romero, however, the current contract does not allow for suspensions to be turned into written reprimands if the suspension was for more than three days. He said three-day suspensions are limited to minor incidents, such as backing a car into a post or failing to check a Taser when going on duty.

Activists also asked that the chief be able to consider misconduct when deciding whether an officer should be promoted. Romero said the current contract already allows the chief to decide whether an officer should be promoted, regardless of how many points he has accrued within the scoring system.

Activists also requested that APD “stop sealing records of misconduct” under a certain section of Texas law, Local Government Code Section 143.089(g).

Ron DeLord, attorney and negotiator for the APA, told the Austin Monitor that what’s open to the public is determined by state law. “All final disciplinary decisions are public and have always been public. Now, anytime an officer gets in trouble, they publish his disciplinary record.”

Lowell Denton, an attorney and labor negotiator for the city, said in instances where there is an investigation but the chief does not impose discipline, the information is not available to the public. However, one of the concessions that the union made was allowing that information to be provided to the Citizen Review Panel. Any report that the panel makes is public.

Community groups also dislike the fact that the contract requires the city’s Law Department to evaluate whether material in investigative files would be considered not disclosable under other state laws. For example, Denton said, if there is material about a juvenile or a person’s HIV status, the Law Department must consider whether release of the information would violate state or federal privacy laws.

DeLord said the association would not agree to asking the city to release that information.

APA released the following statement Tuesday: “Pending final review, the City of Austin and the Austin Police Association have reached a tentative agreement on a contract with the community that strengthens transparency and civilian oversight. It includes fair raises for our officers, but adjusts the trend in cost of public safety. It also maintains our standing as the most culturally competent police department in the state, and arguably the nation.”

Chas Moore, one of the leading activists in the quest for more transparency at APD, did not respond to the Monitor’s request for comment.

APA uploaded a video explaining major points of the contract to its YouTube channel, which can be viewed here.

Photo by WhisperToMe, Public Domain.

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