With deadline approaching, Houston police union contract takes new focus

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series exploring police reform efforts in Houston.

After Houstonian George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody and the nationwide protests that followed, public scrutiny of law enforcement policies reached a new level.

“People are watching in a way that they haven’t before,” said Carla Brailey, the co-chair of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s police reform task force. “Being a part of this committee, we knew the results could be a matter of life or death.”

Six months after Floyd’s death, one deadline for reform in Houston is on the horizon. By Dec. 31, the three-year labor contract between the Houston Police Officers’ Union and Turner is set to be renewed.

Both the mayor’s police reform task force and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas released reports in recent months that include proposals to alter two key HPOU contract provisions. One is the 48-hour rule allowing officers to review evidence against them in a misconduct allegation before making a statement, and the other is the 180-day rule preventing the Houston Police Department from disciplining officers involved in misconduct that occurred more than six months prior.

Both reports argue removing or revising the provisions will lead to better accountability, but some union representatives say they are crucial worker protections.

What’s at stake

The 48-hour and the 180-day rules are not unique to Houston, and state law allows any police union to adopt them. Advocates argue they give officers an advantage in misconduct allegations and undermine trust.

“Meaningful accountability and oversight of police means we need fair disciplinary processes in place that doesn’t give officers special treatment,” said Nick Hudson, a criminal justice policy analyst with the ACLU of Texas.

Kevin Lawrence, the executive director of statewide police union Texas Municipal Police Association, said the 48-hour rule is part of a balancing act. If officers are required to submit a statement following an allegation but civilians have the right to remain silent, the 48-hour rule levels the playing field, he said.

“If you’re a civilian, your attorney is going to request the same information,” he said.

HPOU Executive Director Ray Hunt added that HPD can ask for permission from the state attorney general to discipline an officer after 180 days.

“It has nothing to do with us trying to say ‘hey, we want you to hurry up so you don’t find the evidence,’” he said. “If you can’t find it in six months, you’ve got a problem.”

In an Oct. 5 memo, HPOU Vice President Doug Griffith wrote that even with the rules, officers could still be fired by the chief with the mayor’s approval.

He and other union representatives defended the four police officers who were fired in September after shooting Houston resident Nicolas Chavez 21 times while he was experiencing a mental health crisis and pulled away an officer’s stun gun.

“I used to come to work believing that if we followed policy and acted within our training, we would be backed and supported by our chief,” Griffith wrote in the memo. “Lately, that has not been the case.”

While the firings were an incidence of the chief and mayor breaking from the union to enforce stricter accountability, they did not override the need for more systemic changes, Hudson said.

“There are incidents where people are let go as they should be,” he said. “But we need to look at the system as a whole. Even in the Nicolas Chavez case, the body camera video was held from the public for four months.”

‘Heartfelt conversations’

Mayors negotiate labor contracts with union presidents under a process known in Houston and other large Texas cities as “meet and confer.”

The agreement, which is renegotiated every three years in Houston, establishes pay rates and health and retirement benefits as well as disciplinary protocols. The relationship between police and mayors, however, often begins before any elected official takes office. Unions endorse candidates, donate to campaigns, and can mobilize large numbers of volunteers and voters.

Since 2015, the HPOU has donated over $300,000 to local campaigns, according to campaign finance filings.

“Police associations wield incredible political power,” said Chris Harris, the director of criminal justice reform at the nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It’s tough to challenge them in any of these avenues, but that said, I think it’s worth trying at every one.”

Although Turner received the union’s backing in both of his election bids, he said he is willing to consider any recommendation and suggested he is anticipating pushback.

“I don’t rule anything out, and I envision that there will be some very heartfelt conversations,” Turner said. “We are certainly taking the recommendations of the task force very seriously, and I look forward to having those conversations.”

Some advocates are unsure whether the talks will result in change. If Turner and HPOU President Joe Gamaldi do not agree and receive a vote of approval from HPOU members and City Council by Dec. 31, the contract automatically renews as is with a 2% raise for officers. Turner had the ability to cancel the contract entirely by Oct. 2 but did not.

“It gives [HPOU] an incredible amount of leverage,” Harris said.

Alternatively, the contract does not prevent talks from happening after Dec. 31, and Turner’s $20 million police budget increase in June could give him leverage, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“The mayor hasn’t been overly aggressive in pushing for police reform, so that may allow for more wiggle room in negotiating a contract,” Rottinghaus said. “He is on his second term and wanting to make progress on big issues such as criminal justice reform, so this also forces his hand to be able to move on this issue.”

Other avenues for change

If the union contract remains largely untouched, disciplinary measures could still face scrutiny when the Texas Legislature reconvenes in January.

The ACLU and mayor’s task force reports also call for changes to the state local government code allowing union contracts to include the 48-hour and 180-day rules, proposals HPOU leadership indicated they will lobby against.

“We are preparing for the upcoming battle here and in Austin beginning in January,” Griffith wrote. “One that will be hard fought and will cost a ton of money.”

Rottinghaus said the contract negotiations may be a more straightforward way to create change than through the longer, more politically complex legislation process.

“The legislative process is fraught with complications, which might amend it in ways that are not approved of, or it might alter the time frame, or it simply may not see the light of day,” Rottinghaus said.

Unlike state legislation, contract negotiations could lead to cities investing more funding into police pay and benefits in exchange for accountability measures, which gives advocates such as Harris pause.

Predicting the outcome of the negotiations is more difficult in Houston than in Austin, Harris said, because Austin’s are held in an open meeting format, giving residents an opportunity to understand what motivations and leverage each participant has.

Advocates in Houston have requested a similar format, but Turner has not indicated he plans to change the closed-door nature of the talks.

“The last police contract ... was approved by City Council in 4 minutes and 44 seconds,” Hudson said. “We need more transparency.”

Regardless of the outcome, increased attention on criminal justice reform may be shaping future contracts already, Rottinghaus said.

“The city and the county are moving more progressively Democratic, and it’s getting harder to find common ground,” he said. “This is the last chance to have a smooth process in these negotiations when criminal justice reform may be higher up on a new, more progressive mayor’s agenda.”

By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


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