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Police union revisits city’s proposal to expand civilian oversight as clock ticks down

Monday, November 14, 2022 by Emma Freer

The Austin Police Association will respond later this month to the city’s repeated demands to remove civilian oversight of the police department from the labor contract. In exchange, the union has asked the city to reconsider some of its earlier requests, including those related to promotions, vacation time and sick pay. 

APA President Thomas Villarreal said during a negotiation session on Friday that tying up these loose ends could “help get us to where we need to be to ultimately get a deal done.”

Since March, the city has built its arguments for removing the Office of Police Oversight from the contract, so it’s no longer subject to bargaining, and to expand its authority, including the ability to participate more fully in investigations of officer misconduct. 

Lowell Denton, an outside attorney for the city, said last month that this latter piece is a top priority of City Manager Spencer Cronk.

“A substantial and important part of people who are in this community don’t trust the police to police the police,” he said at a negotiation session in late October. “That’s what we’re trying to address.”

But APA has balked at these ideas, saying they deviate from the oversight model in place for years.

“You don’t have an investigatory model,” Ron DeLord, an attorney for APA, said earlier this month. “There’s no inspector general.” 

APA also has had success limiting OPO’s authority under the current contract. In 2020, the union filed a grievance alleging that OPO had violated the contract by investigating complaints of misconduct. The following year, an arbitrator found OPO “had illegally investigated complaints against police officers” and “ordered (the office) to stop doing so,” as The Austin Chronicle reported in January.

“On the heels of the arbitrator’s decision, this is a decently heavy lift for both our team members and it’s … a pretty substantial change from how we’ve been doing things,” Villarreal said Friday.

Despite these concerns, the union signaled a new openness to the city’s proposal – or at least to a compromise that would allow the two bargaining teams to reach an agreement by March, when the current contract expires. 

“We’re working toward it,” Villarreal said. “We’re not just rejecting y’all’s ideas and proposals.” 

APA committed to an extra negotiation session on Nov. 30, when it will present a new oversight proposal. The city, in turn, said it would revisit some of APA’s earlier demands, including those it had rejected earlier in the negotiation process.

Denton also expressed hope that the police union would take a “tough look” at the city’s alternative oversight model, which he argued would help police officers, Austin residents and City Council members move forward from the contentious arbitration proceedings.

“We are proposing a professional, responsible and competent alternative under the city manager’s control,” he said. 

Although the bargaining teams seem to be nearing a detente on oversight, they remain at odds over pay, and have yet to map out a timeline for revisiting the issue. 

APA has rejected the city’s offer of a 10 percent raise over four years; in response, the city asked the union to counter, taking into consideration the fact that rising inflation affects both parties. 

“We won’t be bargaining ourselves by making another proposal,” Denton said. 

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