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Police decline further contract talks for now

Wednesday, December 20, 2017 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Police Association on Tuesday resoundingly rejected the City Council’s request that it continue its current contract for a few months and return to the negotiating table.

Groups that had urged Council to reject the new contract were apparently surprised by APA’s rejection, which means that Austin police will be operating under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143 “except for those provisions that were extended via the contract for twelve months (evergreen) to allow for continuity,” according to a letter the union sent to Interim City Manager Elaine Hart.

City staff is currently doing research to see which parts of the old contract fall under the “evergreen” category. One of those will allow APA President Ken Casaday to continue to work full time as president, rather than taking on additional police duties.

Chas Moore, director of the Austin Justice Coalition, maintained that “Austin has the worst contract in the state right along with San Antonio in all areas,” and would be no worse off operating under state law.

However, when the Austin Monitor asked Casaday whether there is any city in Texas doing more with civilian oversight than Austin has been doing, he replied, “Not even close, but now all of them will probably be more advanced because we’ll have no police oversight and the police monitor will no longer have access to (police Internal Affairs) files. The civilian review panel will be dissolved.”

Kathy Mitchell of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition said being the best in Texas is “an exceedingly low bar, even if true.”

Council Member Greg Casar, a strong advocate for greater police transparency, said Tuesday, “I think there are opportunities to make us the most professional and transparent police department that we can be under (Chapter) 143 or under a contract. So I think that if we stay under 143 – I’m already having conversations with the legal department and community groups about what we can do to make ourselves more transparent and accountable under 143.”

Moore, Mitchell and other members of the coalition that urged Council to reject the contract specifically wanted the Citizen Review Panel to have subpoena power. The police rejected that idea, but the APA believes that they otherwise agreed to pretty much everything the city was asking for.

Moore referred the Monitor to the Campaign Zero website, which details policies and contracts of police departments across the country. According to that website, “64 cities and 7 states limit disciplinary consequences for officers, for example by preventing an officer’s history of past misconduct from being considered in future cases, and/or limit the capacity of civilian oversight structures or the media to hold police accountable.” This is a reference to the current contract, which prevents the civilian review board from having subpoena power.

Ron DeLord, chief negotiator for the APA, said, “We’re not going to go back under this contract because neither the city manager nor the union even knows what the directive of this mayor and Council is. It’s not clear and we only had a few more months anyway, so we’re going to stop.”

Mayor Steve Adler seemed to agree. Even before learning of the APA’s decision, Adler said Council’s rejection of the contract “was always a risk because the issues were larger than anything the negotiators had the ability to deal with. So our system kind of failed the moment.”

Even though the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition sent out a declaration of victory on Monday concerning the unanimous City Council vote, that vote may not look like a victory for long, according to DeLord, because the city is losing its Citizen Review Panel.

From DeLord’s perspective, “People wanted something, but they didn’t even understand what they were asking. They had it – it may not have been a panacea – but we had the only police review board in Texas, massive amounts of transparency, access to data, access to sitting in the interviews – listening, asking questions. Everything they asked for they got except subpoena power.” When opponents testified, he said, they seemed to think they had gotten nothing.

“If we don’t have a contract, there is no review board. Now the city can create one, I guess, but I don’t know what power it’s going to have, because the association is not going to be participating. And so now they don’t have any review board. The city has an Office of Police Monitor but I’m not sure what his powers will be now.

“So they got no victory. They’re welcome to declare it, but I think they’re going to find that they are back to the zero,” DeLord concluded.

Casar said there’s a potential that some parts of the contract would expire that he considers not in the public interest. For example, he said if an officer is suspended for from one to three days, that suspension can be converted after a certain period of time to simply a written reprimand.

“Even under 143, there are votes the Council can take and policy changes we can explore to make sure that we are as accountable and transparent as possible under 143.”

Moore said he thought that the Municipal Civil Service Commission could provide police oversight under state law.

However, Teresa Perez-Wiseley, vice chair of the Municipal Civil Service Commission, told the Monitor that her commission takes no complaints about or from uniformed members of the city’s workforce. So it hears no cases regarding police, firefighters or Emergency Medical Service employees. According to the city’s website, the commission met only three times last year.

Casaday said he expects APA to agree to start negotiations again in mid-2018, after the new city manager has a chance to get his bearings here in Austin. Casaday said his organization spent 12 months and $100,000 on the negotiations, and he seemed personally aggrieved over Council’s rejection of the contract.

According to a statement from APA, “We have learned that new city staff will be assigned to the next meet and confer process, so it is not feasible to have negotiations completed in such a short window. Furthermore, we do not believe that the current contract allows the APA to extend the current contract under these circumstances.”

Larry Watts, the city’s interim labor relations officer, came out of retirement to take over the job when his predecessor died suddenly. However, Watts returned to retirement on Dec. 15.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin via YouTube.

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