With little more than one month to go before the police union’s current contract expires on Sept. 30, insufficient progress has been made in convincing union officials to give up the protections that keep bad cops on the force.
The 15 collective bargaining sessions between city and police union officials that began in February have lacked the drama and vitriol that characterized negotiations five years ago, so there have been far fewer headlines. Yet it now seems time for city negotiators to declare an impasse unless union officials agree to give the police chief the authority needed to fire bad cops and agree that an officer’s past record of bad behavior must be considered in all disciplinary procedures.
As Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick previously reported, disciplinary reform — specifically tightening the rules surrounding the appeals process for officers accused of misconduct — is the city’s highest priority in these negotiations in its effort to keep fired cops from returning to the San Antonio Police Department.
The city wants the chief of police to have more authority in deciding which officers are no longer fit to work for him while the San Antonio Police Officers Association says a third-party arbitrator should continue to have the final say. The city budged slightly before talks were suspended in April as the May elections approached, allowing that an arbitrator could overturn discipline found to be “arbitrary and capricious. The police union has so far agreed to similar language, but disagreement remains on some of the finer points of the appeals process for fired cops.
Imagine this: a San Antonio police officer can beat up an unarmed civilian, be fired by the police chief for egregious misconduct, and then return to work after a third-party arbitrator reduces the punishment to a suspension. The same officer can commit another assault a few years later, and the first incident cannot be used in deciding disciplinary action.
This is possible due to a provision in the police contract that needs to go. Otherwise, in this era of citizens demanding and being promised real police reforms by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other elected officials, what do we have to talk about? It’s the union’s turn to budge.
The union’s evergreen clause will kick in as the current contract expires. It offers eight years of protection for current wages and benefits, not to mention disciplinary procedures, but it also means the rank and file union members will go without a pay raise and will see insurance premiums kick up 10% every year there is no new agreement.
The city has a carrot to offer before it goes to the stick. The carrot is better wage increases. Its pandemic-induced offer of 8% over five years was made as city officials wrestled with a $100 million hole in the budget, a hole that has now been more than plugged thanks to federal stimulus spending. In fact, civilian city workers are set to receive a 5% increase in the new budget that kicks in on Oct. 1, after decades of being given lower increases than police and fire, and accepting less generous benefits.
I bet city officials now feel they can probably afford to meet or at least come close to the union request, which called for no pay raises in the first two years of the contract, followed by 4% raises in each of the next three years. That is especially so if the union agrees to the city’s 10% increase in health care premiums.
The union’s opening bid called for 12% over the next five years. Dimmick explained how the raises would occur, year by year, in this previously published article on the two sides and their different wage and benefits proposals.
The union’s wage proposal also includes two caveats: If city employees receive a cost of living increase or firefighters get higher yearly increases, police officers will, too. The proposed 5% pay increase for non-uniformed city employees in the 2022 budget makes this clause that the union proposes more costly.
That could be a sticking issue.
The more generous wage package, of course, should be predicated on a successful negotiation resulting in real reforms to police disciplinary procedures.
If union negotiators fail to take the carrot, there is still the stick. City officials should let the evergreen clause kick in and suspend negotiations. It should be made clear that any future resolution through mediation will not include a signing bonus to make up for lost wages. The last contractual standoff ended with police receiving 14% in wage increases over four years as well as a signing bonus.
Let’s hope Nirenberg and City Council show more resolve than Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council showed five years ago.
Union leaders should have no problem selling members a new contract that includes significant changes in the police disciplinary process at the same time it rewards officers for the difficult, sometimes dangerous public service they perform and have performed throughout the pandemic.
Police officers deserve a fair wage increase. Citizens deserve police officers they can trust.