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Commission fails to endorse police contract

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 by Jack Craver

Citing a lack of information, the Public Safety Commission on Monday declined to endorse the union contract recently hammered out between the Austin Police Association and city labor negotiators.

In addition to concerns expressed by some commissioners about shortcomings of the contract cited by activists urging greater police accountability, some members of the commission voted against recommending the contract after acknowledging that they haven’t read it yet.

Chair Rebecca Webber expressed frustration that the contract was not provided to commissioners, even though it is already available on the APA’s website. Sarah Griffin, an attorney hired by the city to help in the negotiations, said that the city’s position is that the contract is not public until it is ratified by members of the APA, at which point it will be presented to City Council.

Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales said that she had read the contract on the union’s website and made a motion that the commission recommend that Council approve the contract. She and commissioners Kim Rossmo and Sam Holt were the only three votes in favor.

The commission will take up the contract again at its next meeting in December.

The meeting preceding the vote featured tense moments of disagreement between activists, union representatives and members of the commission.

Representatives of civil rights groups told the commission that the proposed contract includes some improvements but does not go nearly far enough in investigating and punishing police misconduct.

“Without the appropriate sticks, we’re not going to have the change we require,” said Chris Harris of Grassroots Leadership.

Harris noted that Austin police have killed 18 people over the past four years, representing 13 percent of all the homicides in the city. He also highlighted a study that found that African-Americans were significantly more likely to be subject to the use of force by police.

APA President Ken Casaday rejected the notion that Austin has a “use of force problem,” calling it a “flagship” city in terms of police training and accountability. Officers make mistakes, he noted, “but in a lot of those cases you see people disciplined or fired.”

The police accountability advocates applauded a provision that will allow a member of the Citizen Review Panel to watch the interviews that are conducted with police officers after an officer-involved shooting and another that will allow citizens to report police misconduct anonymously over the telephone or online, which Griffin referred to as a “huge concession for the union.”

However, Matt Simpson of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the contract does not empower the Citizen Review Panel enough. The panel should be given subpoena power to compel witness testimony, he said.

Rossmo disputed the characterization of the activist groups by Griffin and others as representing the community. He repeatedly referred to them as “special interest groups” and claimed he’d never heard of them.

His comments sparked an emotional response from Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition.

“I think it’s very interesting that this older white gentleman has not heard of Austin Justice Coalition because he’s not directly affected by these issues,” he said.

Moore also expressed shock that some commissioners were trying to “rubber stamp” a contract they hadn’t read.

Rossmo later responded that the commission has held the police department accountable but that “we require evidence and data, not just people’s opinions.”

Moore made a point earlier in the meeting to highlight good things the police department and the union have done, going so far as to call the department “awesome.”

Later on, Casaday returned the favor. Like the activists, he said, “The one common goal we have is to make sure that we have a better police department and a safer community.”

Photo by Highway Patrol Images (Code 3 full LED lightbar HB 203) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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