City Council votes to approve Austin police contract

Austin
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council voted unanimously to approve a new contract with the Austin Police Department.

Members of the Austin Police Association, the police union, voted Thursday morning to approve a new employment contract, that was then voted on by the city council. 

The contract comes nearly a year after the previous agreement expired. Austin City Council rejected a new deal at the urging of social activists who wanted more oversight and transparency guidelines. Council members sent it back to the negotiating table last December. 

The $44.6 million proposed deal includes a 1 percent raise for officers this year, and 2 percent raises each of the next three years. It also details changes to promotions, hiring, and paid leave, among other topics the union was fighting for.

Officers will be able to get stipends again for things like working the night shift, having a college degree, receiving certification from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education, being trained as a mental health officer and being bilingual. However, officers will not be back-paid for those stipends during the time they were not under a contract, Chief Brian Manley confirmed.

City Council members held a press conference in the morning before their vote, acknowledging that while the nearly-yearlong process was not perfect, they learned important lessons about how to do better next time. They also planned ahead for more officers as Austin grows.

Another provision in the contract would establish the Office of Police Oversight, which provides for changes to the current watchdog Office of Police Monitor. A separate item on the council agenda Thursday would officially create that office.

“We want to have more effective, transparent and community-driven public safety, while honoring our officers and their sacrifices,” said Alison Alter, who represents District 10.

Chas Moore, executive director of criminal justice reform group the Austin Justice Coalition, said he’s pleased with several of the oversight provisions in the deal.

“One, the anonymous complaints,” he said. “That was always, like one of my biggest things in this.”

The new office could also set up a way to file anonymous complaints online. That, Moore said, would make the process less intimidating for people, as opposed to going to the police department in person.

The oversight office would also have the power to perform preliminary reviews of complaints and evidence before an investigation, to keep complainants updated throughout the process, and to conduct close-out meetings with people who file complaints to discuss how and why the office came to the conclusions it did.

“What makes it most important, right, [is] the fact that the community, the police union, the city can go back to this [contract] and reference, ‘Well, we agreed that you would do these things,'” Moore said.

Casaday, APA’s president, was waiting until his members voted before commenting too much about the deal and the oversight provisions. But while he said civilian review is important, it’s become less so due to the prevalence of body-worn cameras.

“Everything that we do is on video,” he said, calling it the “ultimate oversight.”

But problems have come up with the department’s use of the video equipment since the city started rolling out the devices last October. 

The cameras use a magnetic clip to attach to officers’ uniforms. Some of them aren’t holding in place as police go about their duties, so the department is looking for other options to attach them. In a high-profile incident this summer, an officer was recorded on a cell phone punching a suspect, but neither of the two officers’ body cams caught it after one fell off and the other didn’t work properly.

The cameras aren’t the fix-all, Casaday said, but overall they’ve improved how the department and the city agencies officers work with are able to respond to complaints and questionable incidents.

“We know how good of a department we have,” Casaday said. “We’ve had the most oversight in the state of Texas of any agency in the last 18 years.”

That will be true, Moore agreed, if the provisions pass. “They will become the most progressive and most transparent in the state of Texas,” the activist said.

Still, his fight is not over. The next step for the Austin Justice Coalition will be seeking more independence for the Office of Police Oversight, taking it out of the police contract process entirely.

“Hopefully, in four years” when the contract expires, he said, “we can then have that conversation.”

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