Amid continuing contract negotiations, the City of San Antonio and the police union have come to a consensus on specific language for rules that an arbitrator has to follow in order to rehire a fired officer, a key element in the police disciplinary process.

Under the new language, which both sides tinkered with for months, if the city proves both that misconduct occurred and the officer’s misconduct is detrimental to the department, then an arbitrator can’t randomly overturn the chief of police’s decision to fire an officer.

Disciplinary procedures for misconduct — which are often not associated with criminal conduct — are outlined in article 28 of the contract. Section 9 describes the scope of the arbitrator’s authority, which is currently quite broad. Arbitrators, who are individuals that the union and city agree on to oversee appeals, currently do not need a specific reason to decrease any punishment handed by the chief.

At least 10 police officers have had their firings reduced to suspensions through arbitration in the last decade, including one who threatened to choke his girlfriend, another who served a feces sandwich to a homeless man, and another who used a racial slur on a man in custody.

Since talks began in February, disciplinary procedures for officer misconduct have been the main focus. The city wants more accountability for misconduct and to give the chief’s decision to fire an officer more weight in the appeals process. The San Antonio Professional Officers Association wants to protect officers from what they consider unnecessary or overzealous punishment.

Lead negotiators for the two sides said that the language accepted Friday regarding the scope of the arbitrator’s authority balances those goals.

“We solidified the process,” said Christopher Lutton, chair of the union negotiations committee. “It gives [the arbitrator] some detailed direction.”

María Villagómez, the deputy city manager who leads the city’s negotiating team, said Friday was a “productive day.”

The new language — if it’s included in the contract and approved by both union membership and City Council — would split the process for suspensions and indefinite suspensions, which is the equivalent of firing.

For suspensions, the arbitrator has to uphold the length handed down by the chief unless they find that the punishment is “arbitrary, unreasonable, or unrelated to the needs of the service.”

For firings, the arbitrator can’t reduce that punishment to a suspension unless the chief fails to show that the misconduct represents a “substantial shortcoming,” which is that the violation interferes with their ability to effectively serve in the police department or that community expectations would not support them being rehired.

The consensus on the arbitrator’s authority is a big step forward, but there’s a lot more work to be done on other disciplinary processes, Lutton said.

The two sides still have significant disagreements when it comes to what potentially incriminating evidence an officer can see before being questioned by Internal Affairs.

The city wants to withhold witness statements and other testimony, allowing the officer to only view bodycam footage and GPS data. The union wants the officer to be able to view witness statements.

Another key point of contention lies within the so-called “180-day rule” that essentially gives officers a pass for misconduct that has occurred more than 180 days ago.

Both sides have agreed to keep that statute of limitations for minor violations and want to change the rule for major misconduct. For more serious infractions, the department would have 180 days to start the disciplinary process after a supervisor is made aware of it.

But the city and union representatives haven’t yet agreed on how to define “major misconduct.”

Those elements of discipline could be more important to the protection of officers than changes to arbitration, Lutton said.

“The process works, the execution of the process is what … causes us the problems,” he said. “I think everybody would rather have good discipline doled out correctly than [inappropriate] discipline turned over at the arbitrator [stage].”

The union also proposed on Friday a new pay-increase schedule that further increases its initial proposal that would provide each member a $4,000 bonus in 2022 and raises that would amount to 18% altogether over the next five years.

Previously, the union proposed a 12% cumulative base pay increase and another that would match a cost of living increase if one was given to non-uniformed city employees.

Friday’s proposal included a “me too” clause if firefighters get a higher increase in their next contract, but did not include a cost-of-living increase.

The city’s budget outlook post-pandemic isn’t as bleak as previously predicted and the department needs to do as much as it can to attract and retain police officers, which Lutton said were justifications for the pay increases.

“The younger generation is demanding different working conditions: ‘I want to work remote, or different hours,'” he said. “The thing is with the police, we can’t really offer you those.”

For the city’s part, Villagómez said she’ll have to do some calculations to estimate what kind of an impact the contract as a whole will have on the budget. The fact that the union wants a six-year contract, rather than the more traditional 5-year pact, also will make it more expensive.

Most industries — and most city departments — are dealing with the changing demands of a younger workforce, she noted.

“I’m just going to have to run the model and see what flexibility we have financially,” Villagómez said.

It’s unclear when the two sides will reach a deal; previous negotiations have taken months and in some cases years. A so-called evergreen clause currently in place allows most of the terms of the contract that expired Sept. 30 to continue for eight years. During that time, however, base pay raises for union members have halted but annual increases to health insurance premiums will continue to be paid.

The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org