Austin police officers could be without a contract soon

Austin police officers may soon be working without a contract. 

Negotiations have come to a sudden stop after the City Council declined to vote on a new, four-year contract and instead offered a one-year extension.

This has spurred concerns about potential mass resignations at the already short-staffed department as time closes in for officers to retire with the benefits of their current contract.

Last Thursday, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk announced a four-year labor contract agreement had been reached in principle with the Austin Police Association. He has since been fired and the deal seemingly dissolved.

Council member Chito Vela then presented a one-year extension of the current police contract, arguing that implementing a four-year contract now would have eroded Austin’s democracy, as two initiatives are on the May ballot regarding police oversight.

READ MORE: What is VOPA?: The mysterious PAC behind "misleading" Austin police oversight petition

Chris Harris works with Equity Action, a nonprofit behind one of those initiatives.

"It literally would have made voting almost meaningless. And, you know, I think it's harmful for our democracy," Harris said. "If we ask people to go to the polls, we extend a lot of public dollars to run an election. And the outcome cannot change. Anything does not matter."

Vela argued that there was no choice between a temporary extension and final contract, calling this a bridge, something Charley Wilkinson of CLEAT, the union partially funding negotiations, disputes.

"It's not a legitimate argument because the citizens also elected the city council and the city council sent those negotiators to the table. And until last week, we're negotiating in good faith for a four-year contract," Wilkinson said. "There's no surprises to that. That's a lie. So it's a power play by the haters to create this issue. Go out, get signatures, put this on the ballot, circumvent the contract."

Backed into a corner the police union walked away from negotiations Thursday, something council member Alison Alter, the only Democrat to vote against Vela's one-year extension called "predictable"

Now the police contract, which had already been extended, is set to expire late next month meaning officers may have to work off contract. While Harris and Wilkinson don’t agree on much, both say that’s not good.

"Costing themselves and their members pay benefits and potentially officers," Harris said.

"They have a contract in Houston. They have a contract in Amarillo. They have a contract in McAllen. They're asking themselves, do I stay here?" said Wilkinson.

Alter explained that the passage of Equity Action's petition will not immediately result in more police oversight because many of the provisions in it are required under state law to be ratified by the police union. She doesn’t think that’s more likely to happen a year from now. 

However, the one-year extension does propose giving the police department additional money and once Council has added to the department's budget, they can’t take away from it. So ultimately she says the only thing an extension does guarantee is more money will be spent on the department.