Police union rejects city’s proposals to expand civilian oversight, raise pay

EMMA FREER Published November 1, 2022

AUSTIN (Austin Monitor) – With the city of Austin eager to reach an expedited agreement for a new police labor contract that expands civilian oversight, the police union is demanding higher wages for officers – or no deal.

Lowell Denton, an outside attorney and labor negotiator for the city, proposed a 10 percent raise over four years during the most recent negotiation session on Wednesday, countering APA’s proposal to raise wages up to 20 percent over the same period. The current contract includes across-the-board raises totaling 7 percent over four years.

APA’s bargaining team rejected this proposal, which members described as “insulting” and “disrespectful of our time.” Ron DeLord, an attorney for APA, also canceled two upcoming negotiation sessions – scheduled for Oct. 27-28 – to give the city’s bargaining team time to respond.

“There’s no way to get a deal this week from your position, and we’re not going to counter,” he said. “We gave you a fair offer, and you’re not within 10 miles of that offer.”

The dispute over pay increases is fueled by long-standing staffing shortages at the Austin Police Department and by the city’s persistent demands for increased civilian oversight of the department.

APA President Thomas Villarreal stressed that he wants to reach an agreement with the city and avoid falling out of contract. But he also said his membership would not agree to a new contract that reflects the city’s current proposals regarding pay and oversight.

“I don’t believe that I could take, conceptually, the deal that we have struck, with all the things – in our membership’s mind – given up, and get it passed with a pay package like that,” he said Wednesday.

In recent weeks, the city has mapped out its proposal to remove the Office of Police Oversight from the contract, so it’s no longer subject to bargaining, and to expand its authority, including to participate more fully in allegations of officer misconduct.

Meanwhile, Austinites will vote in May on whether to pass the Austin Police Oversight Act, an initiative petition that would remove OPO from future labor contracts, grant the office access to any police records it requires, and expand its authority to recommend disciplinary action in cases of police misconduct.

APA responded to the city’s proposal during a negotiation session Monday, offering some alternative language that would keep OPO under the contract’s purview but mostly rejecting the city’s demands.

“That’s a nonstarter for us,” DeLord said of the city’s proposal to expand OPO’s investigative authority. “If you want to change the model, then that’s up to the public. But that’s not the model we have. That’s way past the position of the Office of Police Oversight.”

The city held strong, saying that expanded investigative authority for OPO is a top priority for the city manager.

“Everyone at this table knows that we’re not in the same world as we were when we … started putting this process together,” Denton said. “A substantial and important part of people who are in this community don’t trust the police to police the police. That’s what we’re trying to address. It is not a threat to the members of your association in the face of the due process guarantees that we have given and that we’re willing to expand.”

The city and APA will return to the negotiating table on Monday. Despite the apparent impasse, both bargaining teams have repeatedly said that they would prefer to reach an agreement than risk falling out of contract when the current agreement expires in March.

Austinites have experience with this contingency, which occurred between December 2017 and November 2018, after City Council unanimously rejected a labor agreement negotiated by city staff and APA. Without a contract in place, Austin police operate under Texas law, forgoing the contract’s provisions, which range from oversight to benefits to hiring.

“We do believe that the future is better off with a labor agreement in place as soon as we can get together with a meeting of the minds,” Denton said.