As Austin and its police force move forward with a new approach, the upcoming Legislative session could threaten the deal

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Activists and police union negotiators joked with each other at Austin City Council’s Nov. 15 meeting. Council’s decision to approve a new police contract and create an oversight office came before 5 p.m., in a moment Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore said he found “anticlimactic.”

The scene contrasted with a meeting last December that included over nine hours of public testimony and ended with council’s rejection of a police contract proposal for the first time in Austin’s history.

Delia Garza, who represents District 2, called it “the most emotionally tough meeting I have ever been a part  of as a council member.”

City staff, union leaders and local advocacy groups agree the approved four-year contract is the product of a newly inclusive, pro-active and sustainable negotiating process.

After more than 10 months without a contract and nearly two years of negotiations, however, the players may still have to return to the table.

Funding for the contract is contingent upon 6 percent property tax revenue growth annually, and state lawmakers have pledged to cap cities’ ability to set their own property tax rates at the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 8.

A TENSE 11 MONTHS

National and local factors conspired to make this most recent police-contract negotiation more fraught than usual.

Viral videos depicting police brutality and racial profiling have “forced mainstream white America to confront a reality that has been pretty well known among African-American communities around the country,” said Derek Epp, an assistant professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin.

Meanwhile in Austin the previous at large system of local government, under which the mayor and council members were elected by citywide popular vote and historically overrepresented Central and West Austin interests, was replaced by district representation, a system called 10-1, in 2015.

“When you have a 10-1 council, you’re really kind of forced to talk to the community,” Moore said of candidates.

Police contracts in Austin are negotiated every five years; the 10-1 council received its first proposal last December.

“It was the perfect storm,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “That’s the first contract we had after Ferguson, Missouri, and … the forming of Black Lives Matter and different activist groups.”

After council rejected the proposal, citing concerns about cost and accountability, the previous contract expired—and with it went certain officer stipends, such as for working night shifts and court time, and the city’s oversight mechanisms, which were provisional.

Officer morale and the Austin Police Department’s ability to recruit and retain officers were impacted, Casaday and APD Chief Brian Manley said.

Two months after the contract expired, Spencer Cronk started as city manager and began soliciting feedback from contract stakeholders.

After a series of bombings struck Austin in March, Cronk promoted Manley from interim police chief—his title since December 2016—to permanent chief.

In June, Cronk similarly promoted Farah Muscadin from interim to permanent police monitor, a role responsible for assessing citizen complaints and monitoring APD investigations.

“I knew it was difficult to enter into another round of contract negotiations without some assurances around leadership,” Cronk said.

With these appointments made, the negotiations continued through November, when a tentative agreement was reached and summarily ratified by both the APA membership and council.

COSTS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

The new contract includes a 7.2 percent raise for APD officers, the highest-paid in the state, over four years.

The total cost of the contract—through September 2022 when it will expire—is calculated at $44.6 million, nearly half the cost of the rejected proposal.

The city’s negotiating team sacrificed some of its accountability goals in exchange for a lower sticker price.

Under the new contract, Austin residents are able to make anonymous complaints and will be served by the office of police oversight, which replaces the office of the police monitor and expands its ability to operate independently.

Unlike its previous iteration, the office of police oversight will have direct access to all material related to complaints that result in disciplinary action, and the police chief is required to make a public statement any time he or she rejects a recommendation from the office’s director on disciplinary matters.

“We’re going from literally not knowing anything to having an assortment of information about what we’re doing in the office,” Muscadin said.

The union’s negotiating team refused to budge on certain provisions. The 180-day rule, which limits the time APD can investigate and discipline an officer for misconduct,  remains in place, as does a rule allowing officers 48 hours to review evidence prior to responding to allegations of misconduct.

MOVING FORWARD

Post-contract, the city, union and activists differ in public safety priorities.

During the public hearing on the new contract, half a dozen residents spoke on an unrelated issue: an article published Nov. 15 by investigative reporting website Reveal that found APD has classified as many as two-thirds of sexual assault cases “closed” when no arrest had been made.

Rebecca Bernhardt, a policy coordinator at the Austin-based Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, testified, asking council to hire an independent investigator to review APD’s process.

At the city level, council resolved Dec. 13 to consider Manley’s plan to add 123 new APD officers in the next four years.

The APA has taken a page from the activists’ playbook, becoming more involved politically, Casaday said.

The union endorsed conservative candidate Frank Ward, who lost the District 8 runoff election to Democrat Paige Ellis on Dec. 11, and it plans to lobby for increased public safety investment.

Regarding oversight, Muscadin said her priorities include hiring a data analyst to help develop evidence-based policy recommendations for APD and working with overlooked communities, such as people who are undocumented.

She and Manley are also focused on improving wellness among officers, who research shows have an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, substance use and domestic violence.

“There’s a direct correlation between their wellness and how they interact with the community,” Muscadin said.

But before any of these plans can be implemented the city needs to determine if it will be able to fund them.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and several state legislators have said property tax reform is a top priority in the upcoming session.

Funding the police contract in addition to the chief’s staffing plan is based on an assumption of 6 percent property tax revenue growth annually, the city’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told council  Nov. 15.

If the Legislature caps revenue below 6 percent—Abbott has proposed 2.5 percent—cities will have to reckon with how to fulfill labor agreements and fund services, the most expensive of which is often police,  said Cary Roberts, executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, which promotes public safety planning.

“That’s going to affect public safety,” Roberts said.

When the negotiating teams do return to the table, whether in 2022 or sooner,  both sides agree they are in a better place to do so than before.

“I really am looking forward to how we can take this momentum and renewed partnership and relationship-building to the next level,” Cronk said.

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her reporting focuses include employment and economic development. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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