By Emma Freer
The city of Austin and the Austin Police Association met for their sixth day of negotiations Monday as they work toward a new labor contract.
The city’s bargaining team proposed changes to the contract’s drug-testing and promotion provisions, citing recommendations from a January 2022 report by a consulting firm hired to review the Austin Police Department. APA’s bargaining team will respond at a seventh meeting, which likely won’t occur until June.
As in the past, the two parties seek to balance calls for increased oversight, accountability and transparency with demands for increased pay and benefits.
But a lot has happened in Austin over the past five years.
The current contract took effect in November 2018 after a prolonged negotiating period and expires Sept. 30. City Council unanimously rejected the initial version of the five-year agreement in December 2017, sending it back to the negotiating table.
Since then, Austin has grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic; a series of mass protests against police violence and racial injustice where officers injured dozens, some critically; police budget cuts; new state laws penalizing cities that cut their police budgets; the suspension and restarting of APD’s cadet academy; the rejection of a local ballot proposition to expand APD; a worsening labor shortage; and the grand jury indictments of 19 officers who used beanbag rounds on protesters.
Both the police union and criminal justice reform advocates say these events have set the stage for the negotiations.
“There is a different sense of lack of appreciation for what police officers do in this city,” said Melanie Rodriguez, Austin Police Women’s Association president and APA board member.
Against this backdrop, APA Vice President Thomas Villarreal said the union’s priorities for the new contract are better working conditions, higher pay and improved benefits.
“We want the cream of the crop to come here because we desperately need folks,” Villarreal said.
APA President Ken Casaday told the city’s Public Safety Commission in January that APD was short around 200 officers.
But favorable contract terms may not be enough to resolve this issue.
“Nobody wants to be a police officer in Austin, Texas,” said Jennifer Szimanski, a spokesperson for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, citing the lack of public support for police and the recent grand jury indictments.
Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, also senses a shift this time around.
AJC is advocating for more authority for the Office of Police Oversight; an extension of the so-called 180-day rule, which limits the time an officer can be investigated and disciplined for misconduct to six months from the date of the alleged incident; and increased transparency around officers’ personnel files.
“We made many of the same demands back in 2017 and 2018,” he said. “For the most part, the city negotiators did not include these demands as part of their proposal. This time around, that’s different.”
Emily Gerrick, policy director for the Texas Fair Defense Project, said the events of the last few years – including killings by APD officers, recent multimillion-dollar settlements paid by the city to people injured by police during the 2020 protests, and the grand jury indictments – have shown why such demands are necessary.
“The Austin Police Department has clearly demonstrated that we must not allow it to be in charge of investigating and disciplining its own officers behind closed doors,” she wrote in a statement to the Austin Monitor.
Still, Harris is wary about the bargaining ahead. He said AJC doesn’t want to see the city “buy” increased oversight, accountability and transparency with officer pay raises and other benefits. “Those dollars could be better used elsewhere,” he said.
Once the city and APA have reached a tentative agreement, City Council must approve it. If the two parties fail to come to an agreement by the Sept. 30 deadline, the current contract will automatically extend for another six months, through March 2023, according to a November press release from the city.
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Two weeks after the Austin FC star player's sudden suspension, sources told ESPN that Designated Player Cecilio Dominguez is under investigation with Major League Soccer for alleged verbal and emotional abuse toward his ex-partner.
Dominguez's indefinite suspension was quickly announced April 8 ahead of the investigation. No other information was given at the time, although his agent was featured in a Paraguayan radio interview days later claiming that the incident was a "misunderstanding" that would be cleared up soon.
Cecilio Domínguez: Radio clip about Cecilio Domínguez @ABCCardinal https://t.co/K0FyzcJfUk
— RadioCut (@RadioCutFm) April 12, 2022
According to a police report obtained by ESPN, the league investigation began after members of the Austin Police Department were called to Dominguez's residence on April 8. The report said that Dominguez "was advised to not come back to the home as a result of report of family abuse" but that no charges were filed against him.
Austin FC told ESPN it "proactively provide(ed) preliminary information" regarding the report to the league and that "Austin FC continues to help and work closely with MLS on its ongoing investigation."
The club also contacted domestic violence experts after receiving the news, ESPN's source said.
"The club will refrain from further comment until the conclusion of that investigation," the club said.
Dominguez was not arrested, and no further action is being taken regarding the incident. In the police report, the alleged victim said that the two are no longer together and live separately, although Dominguez will continue to support her family.
A since-dropped domestic violence and psychological damage lawsuit was also filed against Dominguez in 2017 by another ex-partner of his in Paraguay.
Before his suspension, Dominguez was tied as Austin FC's top goalscorer last season and was one of its top-billed players with a highly-coveted "Designated Player" status. The club has won both of its matches since his absence and will once again play without Dominguez in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against San Antonio FC in San Antonio at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
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By Amy Smith
With a new cadet class set to begin in late March, the Austin Police Department and consultants are fine-tuning a curriculum that more closely aligns with the city’s reimagined public safety process.
APD Chief Joseph Chacon updated City Council in a lengthy briefing at Tuesday’s work session that included input from Dr. Anne Kringen, division manager over the police training academy, and Kroll Associates consultants Mark Ehlers and Daniel Linskey. The city retained Kroll’s services to review all aspects of the police department, including its culture and diversity, and to help guide the transformation of the police academy’s training curriculum.
Following the briefing, the key takeaway for most of Council was, while much has been accomplished, there is still room for improvement.
Mayor Steve Adler asked the chief to assess the changes he agreed to undertake as part of his task to shift officers from a mindset of warrior to guardian.
“Looking back on it now, do you think that it was a good thing for the department to go through?” Adler asked.
Chacon assured the mayor that it was. “It would have been nice to have had a little bit less pressure, but I certainly understand why the pressure existed and why we needed to do it the way that we did,” Chacon said.
Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter commended Chacon for having “leaned into this process” but expressed concern that the Kroll report on the academy had not been available for Council to review before Tuesday’s work session. (The report was expected to be released Wednesday but had not been made available to the public as of Wednesday afternoon).
“Obviously the report’s not here, but I think there’s value in you owning this and having to understand it fully and thoroughly to be able to present it to us and to be able to answer the questions, because I think it demonstrates your commitment to this work,” Alter said. “I want to acknowledge all the work that has gone into (the process) but I also want us to recognize that we’re not done.”
The 145th cadet class beginning in March follows a pilot academy that Council approved after pausing classes in the wake of public outcry over the rise in officer-involved shootings in Austin and across the nation, with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota serving as the tipping point.
The pilot academy class allowed Kringen and outside evaluators to test-drive a new curriculum, which included anti-racism training, more community engagement and more physical fitness training, mindfulness strategies and stress-coping mechanisms. The class recently graduated 66 new officers.
As with the pilot, the class beginning in March is much more diverse than in previous years, thanks to beefed-up recruiting efforts. The new class representation includes 38 percent Hispanic, 36 percent white, 18 percent Black and 4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander.
Meanwhile, APD has completed almost all of the short-term and long-term recommendations of the consultants, including a requirement for all current officers to undergo more effective de-escalation training, more outreach to community leaders as part of cadet training, and more effort placed on diversity in the academy, from cadets to instructors.
The Austin Monitor is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization with a mission to strengthen our shared information space and democracy.