Nearly a year after contract negotiations between Austin and the local police union fell apart, city leaders are moving to extend a stopgap pay and benefits package for police officers while hoping to restart talks over a long-term deal in the near future.

The status of a new meet and confer agreement between the city and the Austin Police Association also remains tied to voter-approved police oversight provisions enacted last year. Some community members have claimed the practices aren't being fully implemented, however, and a lawsuit filed against Austin leaders in late 2023 could influence the outlook for those changes.

What's happening

With no formal police contract in place, Austin City Council took an initial vote Jan. 18 to continue providing set pay and benefits to officers through 2024 and into early 2025, if necessary.

Council is now prepared to approve a final version of the framework Feb. 1 that includes:
  • Setting pay levels, overtime and leave provisions for Austin Police Department employees
  • Maintaining a pay increase for nonexecutive staff as well as officer recruitment and retention bonuses
  • Supporting some police oversight powers
  • Incentivizing the APA to negotiate with the city and complete a new contract by the summer
"I want to emphasize that getting to a new contract is essential, and once this ordinance comes back it is an opportunity for us to support officers in critical ways," council member Mackenzie Kelly said after the January vote.

The latest action comes about one year after council members rejected a four-year meet and confer agreement developed by city negotiators and APA representatives. That move was soon followed by their approval of a temporary one-year plan, similar to the one now on the table, to ensure stability while contract and oversight matters remained unresolved.

Looking ahead, Mayor Kirk Watson said he and newly elected APA President Michael Bullock are both seeking to hash out a new meet and confer agreement after negotiations have remained at a standstill since last February.

"We agree that the best thing for our police officers and, therefore, for our city and its residents, is to get a long-term contract," Watson said in a January newsletter. "We agree that a long-term contract would be the best way to attract and retain police officers because it would provide officers and recruits greater certainty about their futures. We also agree that a long-term contract will enhance morale, something I also badly want."

The context

While pointing to the importance of reaching an agreement, Watson also noted the situation still hinges on contested police oversight issues.

A key factor in council's rejection of the tentative four-year labor agreement last February was its relationship with two police oversight proposals that were later decided in the May 2023 election.

The political group Equity Action had been pushing to update several policies related to the city's office of police oversight, or OPO. They successfully campaigned to get their "Austin Police Oversight Act" on the May ballot to expand the OPO's access to police data and records, including the "g-file."

G-files, named after a provision in state law, are confidential personnel records kept by some first-responder agencies, including the APD. G-files can include complaints against police officers that don't lead to formal discipline and are blocked from public access.

While Austin has maintained g-files and included the policy in past police contracts, many local and state law enforcement agencies do not.

Following Equity Action's petition, a second group largely funded by the Austin Police Association got a competing proposition placed on last May's ballot. Their proposal featured an identical name and similar language as Equity Action's but wouldn't have expanded OPO powers or g-file access.

Voters overwhelmingly passed the Equity Action measure and soundly rejected the APA-backed alternative last spring. However, Austin held off on some updates given legal concerns about their implementation.

That situation led City Council to formally call to cement the updates in September. But even after that vote, some say the adopted processes still aren't being fully observed.

Diving in deeper

OPO Director Gail McCant said in late 2023 that three main provisions of the voter-approved oversight act and one piece of council's September direction weren't yet completed given technology and coordination issues. She also said she aims to make the OPO's work "restorative" and more cooperative, rather than centered on discipline.

Public Safety Commission members and Equity Action representatives expressed some concern at a December meeting about the OPO acting in close collaboration with the police department rather than as its independent investigator. They also noted that no officer discipline has been logged since early 2023 and questioned whether the office is properly handling any submitted complaints.

Equity Action went on to sue McCant, interim City Manager Jesús Garza and interim Police Chief Robin Henderson over claims that they're actively blocking the oversight reforms, stating that Austin is failing to:
  • Stop keeping confidential g-files
  • Have the OPO look into all complaints of officer misconduct and decide whether to fully investigate them or recommend officer discipline
  • Set up the OPO as the go-between for people who submit officer complaints and the APD
  • Make the OPO a "central depository" for police misconduct materials, and make that information publicly accessible
The group is seeking to force city officials to take those actions. In a January response, city lawyers said the lawsuit should be thrown out given conflict with state law.

What they're saying

“All of the provisions within the [Austin Police Oversight Act] that we’re suing over are legal today under state law; none of them require an agreement with the police association to implement, and many of these functions have been standard practice at the OPO as recently as two years ago,” Equity Action board member Rebecca Webber said in a December statement about the lawsuit. “The continued noncompliance by the city of Austin with the overwhelming will of the voters and multiple City Council directives is simply inexcusable and demands the action we’ve taken today.”

In response, Garza said the g-file issue should be decided in court, and city staff have been "diligently" rolling out the new policies as possible.

"[W]hile I always wish we moved faster to implement changes, the OPO staff are working hard to meet all new mandates of the Austin Police Oversight Act," he said in a statement. "The outstanding question—regarding whether the historically confidential APD personnel files should be made public—is an important and delicate one. For that reason, we welcome the lawsuit. It will allow the courts to weigh in on this important issue."

No matter how that case is resolved, Watson said Austinites made their opinion clear, and the next APA contract must line up with the latest oversight policies.

"Austin voters have already provided the guidance. They said no g-file. So, regardless of the court ruling, if we’re going to have the thing we all agree is the most important thing for getting more police—a contract—the contract can’t allow for a g-file. We all know that even without a court ruling," he said in January. "There’s no need to wait. It’s time to get back to the table. We simply can’t put our police force and city at risk by elevating the g-file above a contract."