What was supposed to be a simple introduction meeting Friday between the City of San Antonio and police union officials became initial talks about substantive disciplinary issues related to their labor contract.
“I think this is a positive sign that the [police] association wants to get something done,” said Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez, the City’s lead negotiator told reporters after the meeting. “So we are … actually thrilled that that is the case, because we also want to get something done.”
Villagómez expressed optimism that the meeting was an indication that reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the police union won’t “take years to negotiate.” The current contract, which expires in September, took more than two years of contentious on-again, off-again talks before being approved in 2016.
Friday marked the negotiating teams’ first formal contact as they reviewed ground rules and agreed to bargain in “good faith” to reach an agreement covering wages, working conditions, and rules for hiring, firing, and disciplining officers for conduct violations. While the City’s focus in the last CBA was on changes to health care plans and wages, this time, the priority is fixing policies that let fired officers back onto the force.
Christopher Lutton, a San Antonio Police Department sergeant who participated in negotiations for the last labor deal, spoke to reporters after the meeting.
“I’m glad that we were not as antagonistic [this time],” said Lutton, who now serves as chair of the union’s contract negotiation committee. “… We feel that … in light of everything else going on, this will be a productive negotiating session.”
In 2014, the City hired Houston attorney Jeff Londa to serve as its lead negotiator. This year, Villagómez has that role. She assisted the previous negotiation team and has worked for the City for more than 20 years.
While the general tone of the meeting Friday was professional and hopeful, points of contention emerged on contract terms the City wants to change related to police discipline: the so-called 180-day rule and the role that an arbitrator plays when an officer files an appeal to overturn suspension or termination.
Criminal incidents involving police officers are investigated by SAPD Internal Affairs through a different process, but the contract outlines procedure for administrative and conduct violations.
Between 2010 and 2020, police officials fired 71 officers, according to information released by SAPD and the Fourth Court of Appeals in July 2020. Of those, 10 returned to the force by way of arbitration, in which an independent professional reviews the case and can overturn or change the punishment.
The City wants an arbitrator to decide only if a conduct violation occurred – not what punishment is appropriate. The police chief and city manager would ultimately make the decision on punishment.
Liz Provencio, the first assistant attorney who is serving as lead attorney for the City’s negotiating team, said the problem with the current process is “the ability of an arbitrator to substitute his or her judgment for the judgment of the chief.”
Union attorney Ron DeLord argued the arbitration process isn’t broken and that changing the system would be just a “step above at-will employment,” which allows an employer to fire a worker for almost any reason.
“We know every day, that there’s huge political pressure on elected officials and chiefs to act at that moment,” he told reporters, using the example of two Atlanta police officers who were fired for excessive force and later rehired because the city didn’t follow its termination policy. “The officer has a right to make that part of their appeal [and say] that this is not fair, it’s disparate, it’s politically motivated.”
The fact that some officers got their jobs back through arbitration is a sign that the system works and the chief is not infallible, DeLord said.
“We’re not going to support a system where people don’t have a right” to launch meaningful appeals, he said.
The 180-day rule
Currently, the contract says the police chief can’t discipline an officer 180 days after a conduct violation occurs. The City wants to change that statute of limitations to start when the chief learns of or should have known about an incident, allowing six months for the chief to decide appropriate discipline.
A similar rule change was made in the firefighters union’s contract last year, Villagómez said.
DeLord said union leadership is concerned that changing the rule could lead to officers being punished for minor infractions – such as being late for a shift or not shining their shoes – months after they occur.
“If the department is after you, they can then start fishing for violations of minor things of which happen two to three years ago,” he said.
Provencio countered that those infractions are handled differently. “What we’re talking about is the misconduct … that is not indicative or consistent with the honor of being an SAPD officer.”
There are few examples of when the 180-day rule has resulted in a fired cop returning to the force, DeLord noted.
Officer Matthew Luckhurst won an appeal based on the rule after he was fired for allegedly giving a homeless person a sandwich containing feces, but never returned to the force because of another incident.
The two sides agreed to disagree, for now, and come back to the table next week with more specific language they’d like to see included or changed in the contract.
If the proposed ground rules are agreed to, a 60-day bargaining period will commence on Friday, Feb. 19, and formal proposals will be brought to the table by the end of this month. Talks will likely be extended by both parties in 15-day increments.
A pandemic and a ballot initiative
In addition to seeking disciplinary and operational reforms, City officials have a clear financial mandate from City Council to keep public safety costs – police, fire, and EMS – below 66% of the general fund.
Currently, public safety amounts to 64.2%, but the City faces significant continued revenue loss due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the general fund alone … the largest operating fund in the City of $1.2 billion, we included about $87 million in cuts over the two fiscal years,” Villagómez said.
Those constraints may put a strain on the negotiations as discussions of wage and benefit increases are likely to come up over the next several weeks.
Also looming over the process is the prospect of voters repealing the state law that allows San Antonio and the police union to negotiate their labor contracts in the first place. Fix SAPD, a policing reform group, collected more than 20,000 signed petitions to successfully place repeal of Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code on the May 1 ballot.
If Chapter 174 is repealed, the City can’t negotiate a contract that includes rules – or possible police reforms – that violate stipulations in another chapter of the code, Chapter 143.
If voters choose repeal, the negotiations as they exist today would stop, Provencio said. If a new contract is agreed upon and approved by City Council before the state law is repealed, the City would be required to honor that contract.
Regardless, Provencio said, the City is working on various contingency plans while bargaining in good faith.
“From the inception of the discussion about potential repeal of both 174 or 143, the City [was] looking into multiple ways to be able to assure our officers that there’s going to be due process, that there’s going to be fairness in terms of in competitive pay,” Provencio said.