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City, police union negotiate new labor contract after eventful five years

Wednesday, May 4, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city of Austin and the Austin Police Association met for their sixth day of negotiations Monday as they work toward a new labor contract.

The city’s bargaining team proposed changes to the contract’s drug-testing and promotion provisions, citing recommendations from a January 2022 report by a consulting firm hired to review the Austin Police Department. APA’s bargaining team will respond at a seventh meeting, which likely won’t occur until June. 

As in the past, the two parties seek to balance calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency with demands for increased pay and benefits. 

But a lot has happened in Austin over the past five years. 

The current contract took effect in November 2018 after a prolonged negotiating period and expires Sept. 30. City Council unanimously rejected the initial version of the five-year agreement in December 2017, sending it back to the negotiating table. 

Since then, Austin has grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic; a series of mass protests against police violence and racial injustice where officers injured dozens, some critically; police budget cutsnew state laws penalizing cities that cut their police budgets; the suspension and restarting of APD’s cadet academy; the rejection of a local ballot proposition to expand APD; a worsening labor shortage; and the grand jury indictments of 19 officers who used beanbag rounds on protesters.

Both the police union and criminal justice reform advocates say these events have set the stage for the negotiations.

“There is a different sense of lack of appreciation for what police officers do in this city,” said Melanie Rodriguez, Austin Police Women’s Association president and APA board member.  

Against this backdrop, APA Vice President Thomas Villarreal said the union’s priorities for the new contract are better working conditions, higher pay and improved benefits.

“We want the cream of the crop to come here because we desperately need folks,” Villarreal said.  

APA President Ken Casaday told the city’s Public Safety Commission in January that APD was short around 200 officers. 

But favorable contract terms may not be enough to resolve this issue. 

“Nobody wants to be a police officer in Austin, Texas,” said Jennifer Szimanski, a spokesperson for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, citing the lack of public support for police and the recent grand jury indictments.

Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, also senses a shift this time around. 

AJC is advocating for more authority for the Office of Police Oversight; an extension of the so-called 180-day rule, which limits the time an officer can be investigated and disciplined for misconduct to six months from the date of the alleged incident; and increased transparency around officers’ personnel files. 

“We made many of the same demands back in 2017 and 2018,” he said. “For the most part, the city negotiators did not include these demands as part of their proposal. This time around, that’s different.” 

Emily Gerrick, policy director for the Texas Fair Defense Project, said the events of the last few years – including killings by APD officers, recent multimillion-dollar settlements paid by the city to people injured by police during the 2020 protests, and the grand jury indictments – have shown why such demands are necessary.

“The Austin Police Department has clearly demonstrated that we must not allow it to be in charge of investigating and disciplining its own officers behind closed doors,” she wrote in a statement to the Austin Monitor.

Still, Harris is wary about the bargaining ahead. He said AJC doesn’t want to see the city “buy” increased oversight, accountability and transparency with officer pay raises and other benefits. “Those dollars could be better used elsewhere,” he said.

Once the city and APA have reached a tentative agreement, City Council must approve it. If the two parties fail to come to an agreement by the Sept. 30 deadline, the current contract will automatically extend for another six months, through March 2023, according to a November press release from the city. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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