A police officer stands for promotion, but they have a recent suspension on their record.

Right now, the police chief can judge whether to grant that promotion — but should he have that power? Or is it better to have a cut-and-dry rule that gives a clear answer even before the paperwork hits the chief’s desk?

The question between discretion and rule-based judgment proved to be a speed bump in an otherwise brief negotiation session between the City of San Antonio and the police union on Monday. The two sides are in ongoing talks to hash out a new labor contract for the San Antonio Police Officers Association, whose contract expires at the end of September.

Advocating for a cut-and-dry rule is the city, whose negotiators have proposed a contract revision under which officers could not be promoted if they had been subject to a suspension in the previous two years. City negotiators say the rule would standardize expectations for conduct and would stop officers with recent concerning conduct from being promoted.

Union negotiators say the chief’s power to approve or deny promotions already prevents officers with a questionable record from rising through the ranks. Removing that case-by-case judgment, they argued, could unfairly delay promotion to a deserving officer whose history includes an inconsequential mishap, such as “dinging a car” in a parking lot or forgetting to file paperwork.

“If a car accident gets one day [suspension], and a use-of-force gets four days [suspension], those employees would be treated the same,” said Christopher Lutton, who chairs the union’s negotiation committee.

“This creates chaos,” said attorney Ron Delord, the union’s lead negotiator, who said the change was not necessary because he had seen many officers denied promotion by police chiefs for disciplinary action over the years.

City negotiators say the proposed rule would not sweep together serious misbehavior with inconsequential mistakes because lesser infractions do not typically result in suspensions. But some of the examples brought up by the union, such as a failure to file paperwork, can actually signal a serious problem.

“As you go up, you get increased responsibilities. And discipline is a reflection on that,” said María Villagómez, the deputy city manager leading the city’s negotiating team, adding that the two-year time frame allows officers time to grow from their mistakes.

The rule would clarify the process and give all parties an understood expectation that leaves little room for uncertainty, she said.

The proposed change would also affect appeals. Currently, if the police chief denies a promotion to an officer based on past discipline, the officer can appeal that decision, just as they can appeal the original discipline. Under the proposed rule, officers would not be able to appeal a lost promotion.

At the end of the discussion Monday morning, union representatives said they planned to return with a counter-proposal which could address some of the city’s concerns.

Unlike the dispute over promotions, agreements appeared to be congealing on other contract details. Both sides want to pursue new family-friendly leave benefits, with the only sticking points stemming from the exact amount of time allotted and other technical details.

Contract talks have been ongoing since February, with the city and the union sparring over disciplinary procedures and wages. The city’s top priority is to reduce the power that outside arbitrators have to overturn firings from the police chief. The union wants to defend this process, which has led to fired officers getting their jobs back.

The city and union have come together on less controversial points, such as the statute of limitation for misconduct and some evidentiary rules. So far, no progress has been made on two major components: health care and wages.

Talks are moving at a much faster pace than they have for previous contracts, both sides say.

The latest contract, agreed to in 2016, arrived after two years of on-again-off-again negotiations.

Still, representatives from both sides of the table said earlier in August that negotiations are unlikely to be completed before the current contract expires. The current contract will continue under its “evergreen” clause until a new one is agreed upon.

The next negotiation session is slated for Sept. 8.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.