City leaders in San Antonio will soon vote on a new union contract for police officers that contains no reforms to accountability processes for cops, because the officers’ union wanted more money before agreeing to higher standards.
Mayor Ivy Taylor brought a seven-point list of reforms to union negotiators this spring, the San Antonio Express-News reports, but none made it into the contract. If the City Council ratifies the deal on September 1, the city will continue to face tight limits on how it can discipline officers.
Any misconduct records older than two years cannot be used to justify punishment for new incidents. Short suspensions that officers do not appeal get erased and converted into simple reprimands on their records after two years.
Taylor’s seven-point wishlist would have ended each of those rules, giving the Chief of Police greater ability to punish repeat offenders and examine patterns of behavior across an officer’s full career when deciding to suspend, demote, or fire a cop.
“It’s holding that provision ransom, demanding more pay in exchange for a more accountable police department.”
“The (police) chief (William McManus) and I feel that it is important, but the union was not willing to consider that and they wanted to be paid for any changes in the disciplinary process,” city manager Sheryl Sculley told the Express-News.
The contract already includes a 14 percent raise over four years. The raises union officials reportedly sought in exchange for reform would have been over and above those pay bumps — something that one activist called “essentially extortion.”
Rules concealing officers’ past disciplinary records are “something that activists and a city councilmember have pushed to get removed. The union has refused,” Campaign ZERO data scientist and policy analyst Samuel Sinyangwe told ThinkProgress. “It’s holding that provision ransom, demanding more pay in exchange for a more accountable police department.”
The reform-free contract sailed through a union vote with 71 percent approval. It now heads to the City Council, where at least one member plans to vote against the deal. Black Lives Matter activists in the city protested the deal over the weekend and protesters rallied outside a council meeting Wednesday night.
“It’s outrageous that cities bargain over whether or not a department that has the power to kill people should be held accountable.”
San Antonio’s current police contract, which expired in 2014, is among the worst in the nation’s major cities on measures of accountability. The organization Campaign Zero has compiled police contract language from 81 of the 100 largest American cities in a database measuring six specific categories of accountability language. Though most of the cities fail on a majority of the group’s standards, San Antonio is one of just six cities to fail on every one.
By trying to trade basic accountability measures for cash, the union implies a desire to link cops’ professional conduct to their financial wellbeing. If negotiators took that idea to its logical endpoint, police pay might fluctuate dramatically based upon individual officers’ reputations in the communities they patrol, and abusing someone’s body or civil rights could mean a cop gets behind on rent or sees their car repossessed.
“I’ve seen no data to support the conclusion” that paying police more will improve their performance on civil rights or use of force, Sinyangwe said. “I’m in San Francisco right now where cops make around $80,000 or $90,000 starting pay. That didn’t save Mario Woods. It doesn’t prevent the San Francisco PD from being one of the most violent departments in the country.”
But as strange as the concept of linking pay and professionalism in this hard-and-fast contractual way might seem, it also appears to be a common mode of thinking for police unions.
Cincinnati police are refusing to wear body cameras unless the city agrees to hand out a corresponding raise. City leaders in Seattle proposed wage hikes to win union support for a modest tightening of accountability rules, but rank-and-file officers voted that deal down by a five-to-one margin. Chicago FOP head Dean Angelo Sr. explicitly told the Chicago Tribune that if the city council wants to end 35 years of accountability loopholes in the next contract, “we’ll tell them to pony up.”
In one sense this is rudimentary labor solidarity at work. Any group of people who unionize for mutual benefit are going to press for better compensation in exchange for agreeing to higher performance standards.
But policing is no ordinary job. This isn’t a factory boss demanding laborers crank out more widgets in less time. It’s society demanding that the men and women it equips with lethal force stop misusing their authority to maim, kill, and humiliate people.
“I think it’s outrageous that we are seeing across the country cities essentially bargaining with police unions over whether or not a department that has the power to kill people should be held accountable,” Sinyangwe said.
He called on progressives to pressure police unions. “If you’re mad about police violence, that requires you to speak out about how the unions are undermining accountability. And if you’re a conservative and you’re going after every other type of union in the country you need to ask yourself what ideology justifies that selective treatment.”
Law enforcement unions routinely resist popular demands on accountability. Attempts to resolve that resistance through compromise won’t necessarily satisfy either side, as the rejected contract in Seattle illustrates. Reform advocates called the contract’s new oversight provisions “mediocre at best,” and officers rejected those incremental changes despite the city’s attempt to sweeten the deal financially.
Things never even got that far in San Antonio. The mayor’s office suggested a list of accountability policies, then abandoned the push as a “non-starter” — apparently because meeting the union’s counter-demands on pay would have meant breaking a self-imposed cap on spending for public safety in the city.
“Given all the factors, we couldn’t stay under the policy direction, which was keep public-safety spending under 66 percent (of the general fund), and pay for that as well,” Sculley told the News-Express.
This post has been updated.