Late Wednesday night, after almost nine hours of impassioned public testimony, Austin City Council rejected a police union contract that watchdogs say would perpetuate a toothless system of citizen oversight and extend unfair protections for cops accused of misconduct.
The vote sends the city’s soon-to-expire collective bargaining agreement with police, which dictates officer pay raises and benefits as well as disciplinary rules, back to negotiators. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the more than 200 citizens who signed up to speak at Wednesday night’s meeting convinced him that “the contract proposal before us tonight isn’t ready.”
Kathy Mitchell, a policy advocate with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, contends that Austin’s current system of citizen oversight is borderline worthless. Mitchell told the Observer that Wednesday night’s vote should force negotiators to take into account community demands for greater accountability. “Transparency was not addressed in the first round and it will be pivotal in the second,” she said.
Mitchell and fellow activists have tried to reform the Austin Police Department by targeting union-negotiated police oversight and disciplinary measures baked into the collective bargaining agreement that the city has operated under for nearly two decades. As I reported earlier this month, the Austin Police Association says it made serious concessions in the latest round of negotiations. Activists, however, called those reforms low-hanging fruit that aren’t worth the $82.5 million the contract is estimated to cost the city over the next five years in raises and extra benefits for officers.
The fight to change Austin’s union contract has drawn attention from national police reform groups, including Campaign Zero, a sort of research arm of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Co-founders DeRay Mckesson and Samuel Sinyangwe attended Wednesday’s meeting and told council members that Austin could be a national leader on police reform by giving the city’s citizen oversight board the tools to investigate police misconduct independently.
In the last round of contract negotiations, union officials considered that item a nonstarter. Ron DeLord, the lead negotiator for the Austin Police Association who literally wrote the book on building and maintaining police union power, told the Observer in an email that the union’s board called an emergency meeting Thursday morning to determine their next steps.
Mckesson stressed that reformers aren’t anti-cop, just as demanding high standards and accountability for educators doesn’t make you anti-teacher. “It isn’t about being against teachers, it’s about saying that we think kids should have a great education,” Mckesson said. “This isn’t about anti-police, it’s about making sure that there are standards for the community to hold people accountable.”
Negotiators are expected to bring another police contract proposal to Austin City Council in late March. The city’s current contract expires at the end of December, though city officials told the Observer they could extend that into next year if the union agrees to it.