A spokesman for the City of Austin publicized that the talks had broken down on Thursday evening, saying, “The parties reached a setback in negotiations today regarding whether police oversight should be separated from the union contract.”
“The City negotiating team has been clear from the beginning that oversight must be removed from the contract,” the spokesman continued.
“The City is willing to continue to negotiate with the union over pay and conditions of employment, if the Association is willing to continue discussions on removal of the police oversight provisions from the contract. Ultimately, our community members expect and deserve transparency and accountability in policing and we fully intend to make that happen through a combination of City ordinance and a responsible labor agreement.”
That statement came hours after the APA announced the breakdown, saying, “After almost a year of bargaining, where officers proposed the most progressive oversight model in the state, today Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk decided to walk away from the table.”
“Spencer wants to weaponize a system to make officers political pawns and is willing to gamble with officers’ livelihoods and the safety of Austin. Without talking to citizens or council members, Spencer has declared impasse because officers won’t give up their rights or agree to a secret process that actually hides from transparency.”
Dennis Farris, president of the Austin Police Retired Officers Association, told The Texan,” I read the city’s press release and it looks to me like it was written by the activists who want to do away with protections for police officers.”
According to those involved, there are two issues at hand: pay, and the role of Austin’s Office of Police Oversight (OPO).
On the first item, the APA asked for a 20 percent pay raise over the life of the four-year agreement. The city came back with a 10 percent proposal.
That was the first impasse.
But the most contentious issue is whether to remove the OPO from the constraints set by the labor contract — and if so, whether the union should renounce the protections set forth in state code. The OPO is a creation of the last labor negotiation that went down in 2017, out of a compromise to scrap the former Office of the Police Monitor and replace it with a somewhat more authoritative body.
Specifically, the augmented supervision powers granted to the OPO allowed it to field complaints against officers from the public and establish a role in reviewing cases such as issuing a disciplinary recommendation. It did not, however, allow the OPO to investigate allegations against officers — that’s a role for the Austin Police Department’s Internal Affairs division.
At the Thursday deliberation, counsel for the APA criticized the city’s proposal, saying, “You’re [now] on a different page, that you want to take [OPO] out but have us waive the rights we have under statute, but you’re going to control something that we can’t see — we won’t know what you’re going to do and [that] can change on a weekly basis.”
“That’s not going to work for us, and we made it clear you should’ve looked at what we gave you allowing you to have the most progressive oversight in the state by 100 miles.”
The union’s attorney said they were fine with removing Article 16 — a provision at the center of a wrist-slap against the OPO at the end of last year — but refused to both remove that and waive the state code’s protections.
A year ago, a third-party mediator found the OPO to have violated the labor contract by trying to undertake its own investigation into a 2020 complaint against an officer.
“Contrary to the city’s claim, Director Muscadin was not acting within the scope of her authority…[she] clearly was seeking to dictate some future outcome rather than simply making a recommendation,” the mediator wrote.
Until October, Farah Muscadin served as the OPO director — first on an interim basis, then permanently when the office was first created. Throughout her tenure, she frequently feuded with police and the APA. Shortly after the arbitrator ruling, Muscadin went on maternity leave and later announced her resignation in October just before the nine month-leave expired.
This episode lit a fire under the “reimagine policing” activists, such as the Austin Justice Coalition (AJC), to cement the OPO’s roles and authority outside the labor contract.
Police officers, in Austin and elsewhere, are protected by state code — specifically Local Government Code Chapter 143, which makes employment conditions of municipal police a function of an agreed-upon contract and not subject to the whims of the city.
AJC and its allies circulated a petition to expand the OPO’s authority and cement it in the city charter — a proposal likely to meet a challenge in the courts if it passes. The activists collected 33,000 signatures and the Austin City Council chose to send it to the May ballot rather than pass it outright, two months after the current contract is set to expire.
AJC Policy Director Chris Harris told the Austin Monitor, “We have an understanding and a belief that we can’t reach a strong, stable system of oversight that is negotiated every few years with the police association.”
“Unless a long-term contract is put in front of the Council that overwhelmingly mirrors the ballot measure, the Council shouldn’t vote for it.”
The backdrop to this negotiation is a department bleeding from attrition. There are currently 200 patrol vacancies within APD — 242 vacancies total — which is 25 percent of the total authorized amount. This has caused specialty units to be cannibalized into beat patrol and the officers that remain to work more shifts.
Last year, Austin voters rejected a proposal to set a staffing floor of two officers per 1,000 residents. As of January, response times for urgent incidents by the department had ballooned to eight minutes, which sparked APD to set a goal to hire 108 more officers.
Over the last few years, public safety has been the underlying theme of Austin politics writ large, both in its lingering homelessness problem and the rampant attrition within the police ranks.
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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.