Austin City Council members voted unanimously to send a five-year contract between the city and the local police union back to the negotiating table late Wednesday.
The decision came after more than 150 civil rights activists, police officers and residents testified for seven hours for and against the proposed contract, which dictates pay, discipline and oversight of officers. The contract is negotiated once every several years, and the city and the police union began negotiations back in May.
The council has never rejected a proposed police contract in the two decades since it has had one, according to the city.
Before the vote, council members weighed increased accountability and transparency measures against a possible pay raise for officers over the next five years. Austin's police force is currently the highest paid in the state.
“We’ve talked a lot about the numbers tonight,” said Council Member Alison Alter. “At the end of the night, we have to understand that if our police department is going to be the highest paid then we must also expect the highest level of transparency and accountability.”
Supporters of the proposed contract wore blue T-shirts that read, “Keep Austin Safe.” Others taped a large banner calling on council to reject the contract to the large windows at the back of council chambers, which people signed throughout the night.
Reggie James, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, was among a majority of people who asked for increased transparency in the new contract. James said he was a family friend of Morgan Rankins, who was shot earlier this year by APD officers.
“We can’t let the police police themselves. They’ve got a full-time job keeping me safe and I respect them for that, and I support them for that," James said. "But they have a culture. And they have a culture of protecting themselves.”
Activists called for additional oversight measures in the contract, including giving independent bodies, like the Officer of the Police Monitor, the power to investigate officers. Currently, that power is granted only to APD Internal Affairs. The cities of San Francisco and Chicago have independent bodies that have investigatory power.
Roughly a dozen current officers testified in support of the contract – many saying to reject it meant risking a return to policing without a contract. If the city goes with a contract, its police force functions under a civil service agreement as set out by state law.
“If you vote no on the contract today, which you may very well do, then we’re going to be taking steps back in time,” said APD Lt. Gina Curtis. “Does everyone in this room realize that without a contract we lose most everything that we have before us? We go back to zero.”
Representatives for APD cited several changes that they felt satisfied the demand for more accountability, one of which would have allowed citizens to file complaints against police online and anonymously. Currently, a person has to make a complaint in person and sign an affidavit.
The proposed contract would have created a 9.5 percent pay increase for officers over the next five years. According to Larry Watts, the city’s labor relations officer, the increase would have actually brought the department closer in line with pay at departments across the state – from 13.6 percent above the next highest base pay rate to 10.7 percent above.
Council members asked that a new contract come back for a vote before March 22. The current contract expires at the end of December, but there is still the option to renew it.