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City pushes to open police personnel files to the public

Monday, August 8, 2022 by Emma Freer

The city of Austin proposed making portions of police officers’ personnel files public, including disciplinary histories, and raising salaries 6 percent over four years during its Thursday negotiation session

As the current contract’s Sept. 30 expiration date nears, the two bargaining teams have begun debating its most substantial – and contentious – provisions: transparency, oversight, wages and benefits. 

Under the new contract, the city hopes to expand access to officers’ G files, as they’re known in Texas, which include any allegations of misconduct that have been found to be unwarranted or that have resulted in any disciplinary action short of a suspension of at least one day. 

For example, if the police chief determines an officer violated department policy and issues an oral reprimand, a record of that disciplinary action would be included in that officer’s G file, which is currently confidential. 

Deven Desai, the city’s chief labor relations officer, said transparency is the main motivation behind this proposal. 

“When we have an officer-involved shooting, let’s just say, and the chief clears the officer (of any misconduct) … then the lack of information that the public would get, I think, creates confusion and frustration and can lead to … an unfair perception of the officer,” he said.

Desai also acknowledged demands from local organizations, like the Austin Justice Coalition and the Texas Fair Defense Project, to make G files public.

“In today’s world, we’re also trying to be responsive to the community’s request to have more transparency with the department, and – let’s just be honest – it’s really with the police,” he said. 

Melanie Rodriguez, Austin Police Women’s Association president and Austin Police Association board member, reiterated her concerns about opening G files to the public, citing the possibility of false allegations and violating officers’ rights to due process. 

“There’s a reason why, in a court of law when you have a suspect in a case, the majority of the time you cannot have their whole involvement entered in the record,” she said. “If it didn’t result in a conviction or anything like that, you may have someone with a rap sheet that’s 48 pages long, but it’s not necessarily relevant (to the case at hand).”

Ron DeLord, an attorney for APA, added that the city’s Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission can gain access to G files under the current contract.

“The people who have oversight on behalf of the public in general can look at it,” he said. “It’s not like it’s hidden and only the chief can see.” 

In addition to oversight, the city’s bargaining team also delved into pay raises, countering APA’s June 15 proposal to raise base wages by up to 20 percent over four years. Lowell Denton, an outside attorney and labor negotiator for the city, suggested a pay raise of 6 percent over the same time period would be more realistic given the twin challenges of inflation and Austin’s rising housing costs. 

“Just like your members are experiencing challenges about whether or not they can pay the bills, whether or not they can acquire and maintain housing, whether or not their career goals of when they want to become homeowners … are still realistic, that very same set of challenges affects the city as well,” he said. 

Denton referred to a compensation analysis by an outside consultant, PFM, which found the Austin Police Department had the highest base wage among departments in the eight largest cities in Texas. He added that the city’s counterproposal should allow APD to maintain this ranking – or something close to it.

“We believe that this is a belt-tightening cycle for everybody,” he said.

APA was not immediately receptive. DeLord pointed to City Manager Spencer Cronk’s recent proposal to offer city staff 4 percent raises across the board during the 2022-23 fiscal year. He also cited APD’s long-standing staffing challenges. 

According to an April 15 memo from APD Chief Joseph Chacon to Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, APD has a 10.5 percent vacancy rate among sworn officers.

“If what you’re paying won’t fill the vacancies, then why would paying less than the cost of living change the city’s positions?” DeLord said.

The two bargaining teams will return to the negotiating table on Aug. 23, when the city has indicated it will respond to APA’s proposals regarding oversight. If the city and APA do not reach an agreement by Sept. 30, the current contract will be extended through March. Any agreement must be approved by City Council. 

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