Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On the limits of enacting police reform through union contracts

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor went to the meet-and-confer negotiating table this spring with seven requests related to police accountability, reported the Express-News (8/15). A city council member labeled two of the reforms "critical."
A police chief “needs to be able to rely on prior discipline to determine punishment,” the first request read, “so it may be presented to show progressive discipline in arbitrations.”

When an officer appeals his or her punishment, it triggers an arbitration process that proceeds like a trial. And arbitrators often reduce punishments; in the past seven years, they overturned or reduced five of 13 disciplinary rulings on appeal. All five were terminations, according to city officials.

The current contract limits how far back a police chief can invoke prior misconduct in arbitration: 10 years for drug and alcohol-related issues, five years for acts of “intentional violence” and just two years for all other misconduct.

“An entire officer’s discipline record should be allowable,” the request concluded.

The second reform: “Remove Requirement to Reduce Agreed Short Suspensions to Reprimands.”

Currently, suspensions of three days or less are automatically reduced to written reprimands after two years — a mechanism that [one city council member] says has amounted to “altering” police records.

“Suspensions need to remain on the record to accurately report an officer’s history and show progressive discipline in arbitration,” the city’s request to the union stated.
But the union "flatly refused to entertain the requests for reform" and so none of them got in.

Police union contracts have been targeted by the Black Lives Matter movement as a potential vehicle for improved accountability. However, this episode shows the limits of attempting to effect police reform in Texas through meet-and-confer negotiations, which in practice give the local police union veto power over any and all changes.

That said, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Austin had similarly witnessed officers frequently having their terminations overturned by an arbitrator until the department finally adopted a change for which local advocates had pushed for more than a decade: Creation of a disciplinary matrix in the APD policy manual which specifies punishment ranges for significant misconduct.

Arbitrators frequently overturn police officers' firings on the grounds that other, similarly situated officers were not punished in the same fashion. But a disciplinary matrix creates a range of prescribed punishments which arbitrators may presume to be reasonable.

The ability to make firings stick is a key part of confronting what's been called "a departmental culture which protects its own and is unwelcoming of supervision" in San Antonio. Keeping police misconduct on the record when the department makes personnel and promotion decisions helps keep bad apples from remaining on the force or even entering management just because they've hung around for a long time.

These are modest reforms at best but even they were too much for the union and the city didn't go to the mat on the issue the way they did on the Evergreen Clause. Certainly there was no effort to tie wage and benefit hikes to the union's acceptance of a (slightly) stronger disciplinary process.

It's possible the Mayor could have gotten more if there was significant community organizing backing her effort. As things stand, the public didn't know about her police accountability proposals until after they'd been rejected. Rallying the public in support of her proposals would have boosted the likelihood of success. Even so, I'm glad to see her making an effort when no one's looking. If she's serious about the topic, she'll find other opportunities to address it going forward.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Abolish all unions.