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City, police union tussle over increased oversight, officers’ rights

Friday, June 24, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city of Austin has proposed changes to its labor contract with the Austin Police Association that its bargaining team said would improve the transparency of administrative investigations and other disciplinary decisions involving police officers.

The police union’s bargaining team pushed back, saying the changes were too broad and infringed upon officers’ rights to due process. 

“We have a national outcry on transparency. We have a local outcry. We need more transparency,” Sarah Griffin, the city’s deputy labor relations officer, said during a Wednesday meeting. “We are trying to listen to that while we respect the officers’ rights.” 

A lot has happened since the city and APA last negotiated their labor contract in 2018. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 spurred mass demonstrations around the country, including in Austin, where police officers injured dozens of protesters. The protests served as a catalyst for police budget cuts and the temporary suspension of the Austin Police Department’s training academy, which has since restarted following a series of reforms. Meanwhile, a worsening labor shortage and rising housing costs have exacerbated long-standing staffing challenges at APD.

The city’s proposed changes include extending the so-called 180-day rule, which limits the time frame in which an officer can be investigated and disciplined for misconduct; shortening the 48-hour rule, which is the amount of time an officer has to review any evidence of alleged misconduct before making a statement to the department about his or her involvement; and expanding access to officers’ personnel files. 

Griffin said most employees do not get 48 hours to review evidence in case of an internal workplace investigation. 

“We’re trying to bargain away some of the time frame because the general public doesn’t get that (provision) and that’s the general sentiment that we’re hearing from the community,” she added.

These updates largely align with the priorities of local advocacy organizations such as the Austin Justice Coalition and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Emily Gerrick, TFDP policy director, cited the 2020 protests, which occasioned multimillion-dollar settlements paid by the city to protesters who were injured by officers and the grand jury indictments of 19 officers who used beanbag rounds against protesters, among the reasons for increased transparency.

“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 May statement

Police union representatives expressed frustration with the city’s proposed changes, telling the Austin Monitor they don’t seem to stem from any particular incident and could interfere with their goal of making APD a more attractive work environment.

For instance, the city’s bargaining team proposed expanded access to officers’ personnel files.

Melanie Rodriguez, Austin Police Women’s Association president and APA board member, told the city’s bargaining team that such files could include unfounded complaints or information about internal investigations that resulted in no evidence of misconduct.

“The ability to cast aspersions on someone’s good name without merit is troubling,” she said on Wednesday.

The next negotiation session is scheduled for June 30 – three months before the current labor contract expires. City Council must approve any agreement arrived at by city staff and APA. If the two parties do not reach a compromise by the Sept. 30. deadline, the current contract will be extended through March. 

“It is best for everybody for us to be under contract,” APA Vice President Thomas Villarreal told the Monitor on Thursday. “At the same time, we have to make sure that the contract that we negotiate has fair wages and benefits and working conditions for our members.” 

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