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In unanimous vote, Council rejects police contract, sends back to negotiations

Thursday, December 14, 2017 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

City Council members voted unanimously to send a five-year contract between the city and the local police union back to the negotiating table late Wednesday. The contract, which dictates pay, discipline and oversight of Austin Police Department officers, is negotiated once every several years. The city and the Austin Police Association began negotiations back in May.

A city spokesperson said Council has never rejected a proposed police contract in the two decades it’s had one.

The decision came after more than 150 civil rights activists, police officers and residents testified for and against the proposed contract for more than seven hours. In their vote, Council members weighed the fact that Austin police officers are the highest paid in the state with the additional transparency and accountability speakers demanded throughout the evening.

“We’ve talked a lot about the numbers tonight,” said Council Member Alison Alter. “At the end of the night, we have to understand that if our police department is going to be the highest paid, then we must also expect the highest level of transparency and accountability.”

Supporters for the proposed contract wore blue T-shirts that read “Keep Austin Safe.” Others taped a large piece of paper asking Council to reject the contract to the large windows at the back of Council chambers. People grabbed markers and signed it throughout the night.

Reggie James, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was among a majority of people who asked for increased transparency in the new contract. James said he was a family friend of Morgan Rankins, who was shot earlier this year by APD officers.

“We can’t let the police police themselves,” said James. “They’ve got a full-time job keeping me safe, and I respect them for that and I support them for that. But they have a culture. And they have a culture of protecting themselves.”

Activists called for additional oversight measures in the contract, including giving independent bodies, like the Office of the Police Monitor, the power to investigate officers. Currently, that power is only granted to APD Internal Affairs. The cities of San Francisco and Chicago have independent bodies that have investigatory power.

Representatives for APD cited several changes that they felt satisfied the demand for more accountability. One change in the contract rejected by Council allowed citizens to file complaints against police online and anonymously – where before someone had to make a complaint in person and sign an affidavit.

Roughly a dozen current officers testified in support of the contract – many saying to reject it meant risking a return to policing without a contract between the city and the union. If a city goes without a contract, its police force functions under a civil service agreement as set out by state law.

“If you vote no on the contract today, which you may very well do, then we’re going to be taking steps back in time,” said Gena Curtis, who is a lieutenant with the Austin Police Department. “Does everyone in this room realize that without a contract we lose most everything that we have before us? We go back to zero.”

The proposed contract would have created a 9.5 percent increase in pay for officers over the next five years. According to Larry Watts, the city’s labor relations officer, this increase would have actually brought the department closer in line with pay at departments across the state – from 13.6 percent above the next-highest base pay rate to 10.7 percent above.

Council members asked that a new contract come back for a vote before March 22. The current contract expires at the end of December, but there is still the option to renew it.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.

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