It was a packed house at City Hall on Wednesday night as Austinites showed up in droves to discuss a very important issue – policing.
The focus was the Austin Police Association contract, which has been negotiated on over the past several months. On Wednesday, after hearing hours of public testimony, Austin Council voted unanimously to reject the contract.
So what’s going here? What is the Austin Police Association contract and why does it matter?
Every few years, the City of Austin updates its contract with the local police union. This contract lays how to deal with everything from officer salaries and benefits, to police misconduct, to civilian oversight. This year, more than 15 groups and 100 community leaders called on City Council to reject the contract, saying that it costs too much while doing too little to strengthen police transparency and accountability.
Those organizations include the Austin Justice Coalition, ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, the Sierra Club, 350 Austin, and Public Citizen.
“Whether the Sierra Club is working to protect Big Bend or Barton Creek, expand parklands within East Austin, or advocate for better transit accessibility and housing affordability in CodeNext, we’re always fighting for the same values: a healthy environment and livable communities,” wrote the Sierra Club in an Instagram post.
“Our opposition to Austin’s ‘Meet and Confer’ with the police contract renewal fits directly into those environmental values, and we stand with partners, including the Austin Justice Coalition, to dream of a future in which Austin’s city budget can be directed to vibrant neighborhoods, green spaces, and clean air and water for all Austinites rather than spending tens of millions of dollars on outdated approaches toward policing with limited public oversight.”
Last- minute call to action at City Hall, 3pm! Join us TODAY to oppose the new police union contract. Austin City Council needs to hear our voice! Our official statement of opposition: “Whether the Sierra Club is working to protect Big Bend or Barton Creek, expand parklands within East Austin, or advocate for better transit accessibility and housing affordability in CodeNext, we’re always fighting for the same values: a healthy environment and livable communities. Our opposition to Austin’s “Meet and Confer” with the police contract renewal fits directly into those environmental values, and we stand with partners including @AustinJusticeCoalition to dream of a future in which Austin’s city budget can be directed to vibrant neighborhoods, green spaces, and clean air and water for all Austinites rather than spending tens of millions of dollars on outdated approaches toward policing with limited public oversight.” #policeaccountability #austintx #austincityhall #sierraclubatx #politicalaction #politicalparticipation #austinjusticecoalition
While the majority of attendees at Wednesday’s meeting spoke out against the contract, several police officers showed up to voice their support for the contract. In particular, they pointed to some changes to current accountability and transparency policies that were included in the new contract.
Funding for public safety makes up the vast majority of the City of Austin’s general fund budget (that’s the one that pays for parks, libraries, etc). In our latest 2018 budget, police, fire, and EMS accounted for 66.5 percent of our city’s budget (with about 40 percent going to the Austin Police Department). This doesn’t leave a lot of money left over for all of the city’s other priorities, a concern that has received more and more attention in recent years.
It also doesn’t leave a lot of money for programs that address the root social problems that can lead to crime. The Austin Justice Coalition has raised concerns around our current habit of sending police officers to deal with people in mental health crises, considering suicide, and suffering from addiction. In a blog post on the subject, they instead recommended spending money on social workers and emergency medical technicians to better serve patients and come up with long term solutions.
The contract (which was rejected), would have added $82.5 million to the Austin Police Department budget over the life of the deal.
As a statement released by several local community organizations (including the Austin Justice Coalition) expressed, “City Council must reject the upcoming contract with the Austin Police Association and begin to reallocate the millions made available to root-cause solutions to social problems that police can’t reasonably be expected to solve.”
Transparency and Accountability
At a time when police misconduct has risen to the top of our national conversation, many community activists have raised concerns over a lack of transparency and accountability within the local police department. Together, they came up with a list of eight priority reforms they wanted to see incorporated into the new contract. These included provisions that would give more power to the independent Citizen Review Panel and the Office of the Police Monitor, make records of police misconduct more available to the public, and eliminate the 180 day rule (which currently prevents the police chief from disciplining an officer if he isn’t made aware of an issue within 180 days).
While some of these issues were addressed in the new contract, many community activists did not feel that it went far enough.
“Ultimately, the changes to the contract are improvements to the CRP and to the Office of Police Monitor, but little is done to address major ongoing issues,” wrote Matt Simpson (of the ACLU) on the Austin Justice Coalition website. “The community has called for wholesale change and the contract offers more of the same bureaucracy that has not yet proven effective at curbing police brutality.”
What happened on Wednesday
Ultimately, after hearing seven hours of testimony, City Council voted to reject the contract and take things back to the negotiating table. They asked that a new contract come back to them for a vote by March 22nd. This is the first time Council has rejected a contract in the two decades we’ve had this kind of a system.
“The proposed contract simply does not do enough for the cost,” wrote Austin City Council Member Greg Casar on his Facebook page. “For these reasons, I voted tonight to send our negotiators back to the table to bring back a contract that makes sure our police department follows best practices for transparency and oversight, leaves us with enough flexibility in our budget to address core issues of equity and safety, and keeps police wages competitive.”