From the outside, labor contract talks between the City of San Antonio and the police union appear to be moving at a glacial pace since they began in February.
Even from the inside, officials have acknowledged that there are still wide gaps between the two sides on major issues, including officer disciplinary rules, wages, and health care.
Some progress was made Thursday regarding the appeals process for officers fired or suspended for misconduct, but union representatives said it will take two weeks to respond to the city’s latest proposal.
If a new contract isn’t ratified by union membership and the City Council before the current one expires at the end of September, a clause in the current contract keeps most of its terms in place — excluding some pay increases — for another eight years.
While attention and headlines have largely focused on the remaining differences between the city and the union, consensus has been reached on other points, including increased training hours, giving more hiring preference to cadets who live within city limits, and adjusting time off policies. Other strides have been made on statutes of limitation for misconduct and evidentiary rules.
María Villagómez, the deputy city manager who is leading the city’s negotiating team, said she is “definitely optimistic” about reaching a deal.
Compared to previous negotiations, which took years, this process is moving fast, said Christopher Lutton, who chairs the San Antonio Police Officers Association’s negotiation committee.
“We’re still way ahead of any other contract period ever,” Lutton said. “You just take those slow gains when you get them.”
Over the July Fourth holiday weekend, the union sent the city a proposal related to the officer appeals process that copies nearly word for word the language from a contract between the city of Bloomington, Illinois, and its police union.
In April, San Antonio officials had used that language as an example of something it could accept. The city wants the chief of police to have more authority to decide which officers are no longer fit to work for the department; under the current system, a third-party arbitrator can overturn the chief’s decisions for any reason.
Under the union’s proposal, the chief’s decision to suspend an officer can’t be overturned unless it’s found to be arbitrary, unreasonable, or if the misconduct the officer was found to have committed is unrelated to their ability to serve.
To uphold an indefinite suspension, which essentially means termination, a “substantial shortcoming of the officer” must be proved. That means the officer’s misconduct harmed the department and it’s obvious that the community — “sound public opinion” — wouldn’t want them on the force.
The city’s counterproposal, presented Thursday, generally agrees with the union’s proposal, though it puts the burden of proof on the officer to disprove the “substantial shortcoming.” It also changed “public opinion” to “community expectations” in an effort to localize the broader “public.”
The new language would protect officers from being arbitrarily punished by a chief who might have overreacted, said city First Assistant Attorney Liz Provencio. “We’re not talking about the misconduct that has been problematic to all of us: racial slurs, domestic violence, getting in fights. … I think we could all pretty much agree that that’s going to constitute a substantial shortcoming.”
Lutton said the union would study the new proposal, calling the discussion “in general, on the right track.”
The next meeting will take place on July 22.
Here’s an overview of some of the terms that have been agreed to and what’s still under discussion:
- Officers can be punished for major misconduct within 180 days after the police department leadership learns of it, rather than 180 days after the misconduct occurred. Minor misconduct will still be subject to the current 180-day statute of limitations.
- Officers will no longer be allowed to take home questions (“interrogatories”) from Internal Affairs regarding misconduct investigations.
- Officers will be given 24 hours notice (down from 48 hours) ahead of an interview with Internal Affairs.
- Increased training hours from 80 to 120 per year.
- San Antonio residency points for cadet applicants will be increased from 1 to 5.
- Chief has discretion to approve or deny leave based on department needs.
- Employees can take 240 hours of consecutive leave upon separation; under the current contract, it’s 480 hours.
- The union has proposed annual pay increases that likely would total more than 12% over five years; the city proposed an 8% cumulative hike.
- How much authority the arbitrator has related to overturning the chief’s decision to terminate an officer is unsettled. The union does not want the chief to have the final say in all cases.
- There’s still disagreement on the scope of evidence an officer can review before answering questions about misconduct. The city wants to limit what the officer can see, such as witness statements.
- The city wants an officer’s entire record to be considered in misconduct cases, but the union wants limited consideration of past misconduct.
- Performance evaluations tied to pay increases remain unresolved. The union is generally opposed.
- Enhanced family leave provisions are still under discussion. The union wants to attract more female cadets.
- The city wants to replace some police vehicles at a mileage higher than 85,000.
- On health care, the city wants to continue the annual 10% increase of health care premiums for officers who have chosen that plan (officers can choose a plan that does not have monthly premiums). The union wants to cut down that escalation rate to a range of 2% to 7%.
For a comprehensive list of proposals and meeting recordings, visit the city’s website.
This article has been updated to accurately reflect the amount of leave an officer can take upon separation from the department and the number of miles at which the city wants to replace vehicles. It clarifies the union’s wage proposal.