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Austin City Council passes temporary extension of benefits for police officers

Gabriel C. Pérez

Austin City Council passed a plan Thursday to extend benefits to police officers before their labor contract expires at the end of March.

The ordinance also maintains the city's Office of Police Oversight, which is at the center of a citywide election in May. The office would be threatened if the contract expires.

The measure, proposed by District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter, aims to prevent a raft of potential retirements by officers who might not receive payouts for overtime, sick and vacation time after the contract expires.

Before the vote, Alter said he hoped it would encourage officers to stay as labor negotiations drag on.

"This ordinance tells every police officer two things. First, you are a valuable part of our community, and we want to demonstrate that value by preserving your current pay and benefits," he said. "Second, we understand this is a turbulent time, but we want to create as much stability as possible. And rather than pushing you out the door, we ask that you continue to serve our community."

Last week, the Austin Police Association told City Council it wouldn’t negotiate an extension of the current contract because it had already done a year’s worth of negotiating for a four-year contract.

But over the course of those negotiations, Austinites put two petitions on May’s ballot: One would give more authority to the city’s independent and citizen-led police oversight offices; the other would do the opposite. Council members want people to vote on those initiatives before making a long-term agreement with the police union.

But the union hasn’t budged ahead of the end-of-March deadline.

Thursday’s vote on the benefits plan came after a flurry of amendments and amendments to those amendments. When the dust settled, council added language to study incentives to retain officers and cadets amid negotiations, and incentives for living within Austin city limits.

Looming over all of this is the department’s staffing shortage. APD has nearly 250 officer vacancies, and the union says some officers may choose to retire to get paid out for sick and vacation time if a deal isn’t reached.

The labor negotiations became a focal point in discussions of street takeovers that shut down four intersections last weekend.

Watson sparred with the police union after it argued the incidents were the result of the breakdown in negotiations. At a news conference Thursday, however, he said there was “little question” that the department is understaffed.

"If you look at the numbers, Austin is a safe city. It's a safe city by comparison, but let me be clear: If people don't feel safe, we need to take action," he said. "And just because the statistics show we're a safe city in a lot of ways, there's room for improvement."

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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