The agreement will span four years, over which time officers will receive a 14 percent raise — per the city, a total value of $64.7 million. It also expands the role of the Office of Police Oversight (OPO) — the civilian bureau tasked with monitoring complaints against officers for alleged misconduct — to include its participation in investigations alongside the Austin Police Department’s Internal Affairs division.
Additional items include allowing the OPO to make disciplinary recommendations directly to the police chief and modifying the investigatory timeline to 356 days.
“This agreement incorporates the goals of attaining a stable environment for Austin police officers, attractive recruitment and retention strategies, and progressive police oversight provisions that are likely to become a model across Texas and the nation,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said.
Austin Police Association President Thomas Villareal added, “The Austin Police Association is not afraid of oversight. We believe very strongly that the citizens of Austin, the City of Austin itself, the department, and our members are all better off under contract. We’ve worked for almost a year to negotiate a fair deal for our people, and a deal that’s fair for the City. And I think that we got there.”
Negotiations reached a breaking point back in December over two factors: pay, and the OPO’s authority during investigations.
The union wanted a 20 percent pay increase and the city wanted 10 percent; the pair met almost exactly in the middle at 14 percent.
On the other item, the city originally wanted the union to renounce employment protections for officers in state code that separates them from run-of-the-mill at-will city employees. That language tying the agreement to Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143 remains in the draft.
Article 16 as drafted, which lays out the OPO’s role, states the office shall have no subpoena power, not conduct investigations without Internal Affairs, and provide the union with reports and analyses before their public release. In the case of a court ruling obstacle, it states that should a court find the section invalid, the language shall revert back to the 2018 version.
The article also requires members of the Civilian Oversight Board must partake in at least two ride-along shifts with officers per year.
APD leadership hopes this blueprint will allow the department to hire 200 additional officers by the end of 2024, and double that addition in the following year.
“We find ourselves with an agreement that, once approved, will both provide significant enhancements to the pay and benefits of the police officers as well as powerful improvements to the police department operations,” APD Chief Joseph Chacon said.
The department has suffered from attrition for years as the thorny relationship between officers and the city’s leadership drove many to retire early, some spurning thousands of dollars in retirement benefits just to get out of the job sooner.
One of the foremost “reimagine policing” activists in Austin, Chris Harris, who has called for “defunding” the department, had a sharply different take on the agreement.
“Austin City Manager Cronk rushing a weak, sloppy [and] costly 4-year police contract to beat expected [Austin City Council] direction to pivot to a short-term deal (in order to protect the will of the voters in May) is exhibit 1 million about why he’s about to get fired,” Harris said on Twitter.
Council called a special meeting Thursday to discuss the employment status of Cronk after the week and a half-long power outages across the city caused by an ice storm that downed power lines.
Cronk opposed a proposed one-year extension of the current agreement some on the council had suggested, writing in a memo, “Council cannot simply pass an ordinance that contradicts state law, and we do not believe we can get Association agreement absent the stability of a long term contract.”
“With no contract, the City ends up with a much weaker and less transparent civilian oversight program than we have currently, which would of course be inconsistent with the goals you have conveyed to me and highly frustrating for Austin residents.”
Harris led a petition effort last year to instate city charter changes that would drastically expand the power of the OPO — containing the potential “contradiction” of state law to which Cronk referred, specifically the protection laid out in Chapter 143. Nonetheless, that proposition will be on the May 2023 ballot, leaving open the door for a significant court fight if voters approve it.
Harris and his allies successfully torpedoed an initial version of the 2018 labor agreement and secured the establishment of the OPO, a stronger version of its predecessor the Office of the Police Monitor.
A second petition dealing with the OPO’s authority was circulated by pro-police activists to counter Harris’ at the ballot box. The council was set Thursday to either pass it outright as an ordinance or send it as well to the ballot.
Even with a changing of the city guard as new Mayor Kirk Watson takes the helm, different strands of the same public safety fight in which the city has been embroiled for years unroll.
The city council still must provide its opinion on the agreement and give final approval. But the agreement is now one step — a big step — closer to resolution before the current version expires next month.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.