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City, police union seek a new contract before May election, when oversight is on the ballot

Friday, September 30, 2022 by Emma Freer

With Austin voters set to vote on whether to expand civilian oversight of the police department in May, the city of Austin and the Austin Police Association reaffirmed their commitment to finalizing a new labor contract before the spring election, despite persistent disagreements about what oversight should look like.

“We are here to negotiate,” Rebecca Hayward, outside counsel for the city, told the police union’s bargaining team Monday. “We’re not waiting for the May election. We’d like to have a contract prior to that.”

APA President Thomas Villarreal agreed.

“I don’t want us to fall out of contract,” he said, adding that operating outside of a contract is bad for the city, the public, the union and officers.  

The current labor contract expires Friday but will be extended through March, giving the two teams six more months to reach an agreement that balances increased transparency with higher wages. Any agreement must be approved by City Council and ratified by APA member officers. 

Meanwhile, Council members voted Sept. 15 to put a petition initiative on the May 6 ballot. Spearheaded by the local political action committee Equity Action, the Austin Police Oversight Act proposes to remove the city’s Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission from the purview of any future labor contracts. It also would grant the office and the commission access to any police records they require, including confidential personnel files, and allow the office to recommend disciplinary action in cases of police misconduct.

The police oversight act aligns with some of the city’s proposals for the next police labor contract. But because of the timing of the election, there’s a chance voters could pass the act after a new four-year contract is approved.

“An approved police contract would supersede any contrary provision in a local ordinance, unless the union contract itself provides otherwise,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to Austin Monitor

For this reason, Equity Action President Chris Harris pressed Council to enact the oversight act, rather than put it to voters.

“Passing this now strengthens police oversight and transparency in this next contract, but postponing until a May ’23 election means waiting until the contract in 2026 or 2027 to improve police accountability,” he said in a statement earlier this month. 

Back at the negotiating table, the city’s bargaining team continues to push for increased oversight and transparency, despite pushback from the police union.

“We believe that the transformation of policing and the push for civilian oversight is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our current time, for both the community and police officers,” Hayward said. 

To this end, the city revisited its previous proposals, including:

  • removing the Office of Police Oversight from the contract
  • making portions of officers’ personnel files public, including disciplinary histories  
  • shortening the 48-hour rule, which is the amount of time officers have to review any evidence of alleged misconduct before making a statement to the department about their involvement.

Hayward cited a November 2020 report by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which analyzed police oversight agencies in five Texas metros according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s best practices. 

Researchers found Austin’s Office of Police Oversight and Community Police Review Commission, along with the agencies in Dallas and Fort Worth, “most closely align with the principles for effective civilian oversight.”

But Hayward also stressed that Austin has room for improvement, citing NACOLE’s support for independence and “unfettered access” to records and facilities, among other best practices.

In a concession to APA, the city agreed to restore a provision related to officers’ due process rights that it had previously proposed deleting.

APA’s bargaining team continues to chafe against these proposals, which its members have said are too broad and infringe upon officers’ rights.

“We’ve given you a comprehensive (oversight) proposal that we spent months working on, and we gave you something that should be negotiable,” attorney Ron DeLord said. “But if the city’s position is that you’re not willing to bargain over it, then we need to know that upfront so that we don’t waste time coming here, trying to get a deal on oversight in the contract. The police are stakeholders in this discussion.” 

In an attempt to find common ground, Hayward said APA had touched on the need for improved transparency and oversight in its own Aug. 4 proposal to “revitalize” the Office of Police Oversight, rather than remove it from the contract.

Sarah Griffin, the city’s deputy labor relations officer, also asked DeLord if removing the Office of Police Oversight from the contract was “a negotiable concept.” 

DeLord hedged. 

“Nobody knows until we get down to the end, and then I guess we’ll have to make choices, and so will the city,” he said. “If it’s negotiable, it’s negotiable.”

The bargaining teams will next meet on Oct.19. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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