SAN ANTONIO – If you wanted a police union contract for Christmas, you’d better ask Santa, because the city and police union’s negotiating teams won’t be delivering one this year.
The City of San Antonio and San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) met Tuesday for the 28th time since their first sit-down on Feb. 12. The two sides say they’ve made progress toward hammering out a new contract, but details on discipline, pay, and other issues remain.
The union’s contract expired at the end of September, but an “evergreen” clause keeps its terms in effect for up to eight years. Officer pay, though, will remain frozen until a new deal takes effect.
With an increased focus on police accountability, the city’s priorities going into the negotiations were on officer discipline. Limiting a third-party arbitrator’s ability to overturn an officer’s firing, called an “indefinite suspension,” was at the top of the city’s list.
A KSAT Defenders investigation found that roughly two-thirds of fired officers who appealed their firing were reinstated, either by an arbitrator or the police chief.
The two sides came to a consensus on the arbitration front in November -- only allowing an arbitrator to overturn a firing if the chief fails to establish a “substantial shortcoming.”
Among other issues, they’ve also agreed to keep increasing employee’s health care contributions at the same 10% rate that was included in the previous contract.
But there are some high-profile items on the table.
The biggest debate at Tuesday’s negotiating session was over how to draw the line between “major” and “minor” misconduct -- a new concept that would affect the punishment timelines for the infamous “180-day rule.”
Currently, the police chief and other administrators can only discipline an officer for a civil matter within 180 days of of it happening. For possible criminal acts, they have up to 180 days after first learning of the incident.
The rule was instrumental in Officer Matthew Luckhurst beating an indefinite suspension for giving a feces sandwich to a homeless man. An arbitrator reduced Luckhurst’s punishment to a 5-day suspension after his attorneys successfully argued the incident had taken place more than 180 days before the chief fired him.
A second indefinite suspension for a different, feces-related incident later stuck, though, and Luckhurst never returned to uniform.
The city and union have tentatively agreed on a new system that would separate non-criminal misconduct into “major” and “minor” tracks.
Officers would still have to be punished for minor misconduct within 180 days of it happening, but major misconduct would be punishable up to 180 days after the department learns about it.
Minor misconduct is defined as “slight variances to department policies, procedures, responsibilities, and expectations.” Missing court or paperwork violations would be examples of that, says the union’s lead negotiator, Sgt. Chris Lutton.
The current hangup, though, is how to define major misconduct, with the union team rejecting the city’s proposed language on Tuesday.
The union team argued that the city’s list of examples -- like, discrimination, harassment involving a serious behavior infraction, or improper/unauthorized use of City property -- was worded in such a way to define any infraction in those listed categories, as major misconduct, regardless of the severity.
Instead, the union wants language that qualifies those examples of infractions as major misconduct only “when these actions rise to the level of a significant variance.”
“You can have discrimination that is not a major misconduct,” said SAPOA attorney Ron DeLord. “You can. It could be very, very minor -- improper pronoun. I mean, it could be any little thing that you could correct the behavior counseling, or things that go all the way up to dismissal.”
The city team, though, says they want a clear line in the sand of what constitutes major misconduct.
“I think for us, discrimination is a significant variance, and that’s our position,” the city’s lead negotiator, Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, told reporters after the meeting.
When an officer faces an internal affairs investigation for a non-criminal matter, the current contract allows them to have a 48-hour heads up before they’re questioned. Both the city and union have agreed on reducing that to 24 hours, but they still disagree on how much evidence the officer can review ahead of time.
The current contract allows for an officer to review, but not copy the following: video and audio recordings, complaints, affidavits, other written statements, GPS data, and photographs.
The union wants to keep the types of reviewable evidence roughly the same. The city wants to limit it to body cam video, GPS information, and any complaints -- with the personal and contact information redacted.
The union’s proposal also makes the redaction of the personal information permissible, but not required.
The city and union have very different proposals for officer pay scales.
The city’s proposal includes a series of four pay raises that would boost officer’s wages 8.2% over the course of the contract, in addition to several lump sum payments sprinkled throughout.
The union’s latest proposal does not include any lump sum payments, but it does have biannual raises that would boost officer’s pay 17.2% over the life of the contract.
The union’s proposal is larger than the plan it put forward at first -- at least 12.5%, plus a match of non-uniformed employees’ raises in the first two years.
Asked if the union’s wage requests went up because they had bent on the arbitration issue, Lutton said “it’s also [that] we’re looking at [the] long-term.”
The union believes the department will need to have higher pay in order to attract good candidates, Lutton said, and it was planning ahead in anticipation of looming retirements.
Lutton said the city’s better financial outlook also played a part in the union increasing its request.
City policy is to keep public safety spending under 66 percent of the general fund budget.
Although the city and police union are into their 16th extension of the negotiation time frame, neither side seems ready to break things off.
It’s a noticeable change from the acrimonious negotiations on the previous contract, when the city’s focus on driving down health care costs put it at odds with the police and fire unions.
The negotiations -- and lack thereof -- that took place between March 2014 and September 2016, involve a court case over the evergreen clause and mediation.
The city and union’s negotiating teams say things are much different this time around.
“I think...both sides have changed how we negotiate. We spend more time talking with each other rather than putting on a media blitz on things,” Lutton said.
Villagomez said the process has been professional and gave credit to the “new association.”
“We don’t agree on on everything, but I think we have had productive sessions compared to what we experienced in the last contract,” she said.
The city and union aren’t expected to return to the bargaining table until January. Once they strike a deal, it will still need to be ratified by the union membership and the city council.