By Enrique Lopetegui
Update on 1/11/10: Includes quotes from Michael Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association)
According to city officials, the police union’s unwillingness to give an inch on its health-care benefits – as most of the rest of the U.S. population has done – has brought the collective-bargaining contract talks between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association to a “temporary standstill” with no immediate end in sight.
“There’s no deadline,” attorney Lowell F. Denton, the city’s chief negotiator, told the QueBlog on the phone Thursday. “I really thought that at some point in the fall we were going to wrap it up, but it didn’t happen. Negotiations came to a [temporary] standstill over the issue of the health-care portion of this contract.”
Although Denton said it would take him “about 45 minutes” to explain the complex positions of each side on the issue, and that he preferred to do it in writing before press time (which he didn’t), he did say that SAPOA’s position is the exact flipside of what regular Americans go through daily.
“People lose their health care either because they change jobs, or they come up with a condition and their carriers won’t renew their policies,” Denton said. “On the other hand, police officers have a very good plan, they don’t want it to be reduced, and they don’t want to pay more money for it. That’s what we’ve been arguing about for the last two or three months. That’s what kept us from going anywhere and the negotiations are stalled. Everybody else in society is experiencing that their costs are going up, the deductibles are going up, the list of drugs are being reduced, but [policemen] don’t want to have changes that take away from anything that they’ve enjoyed for a long time.”
“One of our primary objectives is to address both the short-term and long-term costs of health care,” assistant city manager Erik Walsh told the QueBlog on Friday. “But in both police and fire contracts there were significant changes in their health benefits plan, so it’s a continuation of that. And, from the city’s perspective, the four [Police Executive Research Forum] recommendations that we brought forth to the table were pretty straightforward. If you ask the police association you might get a different answer, but I don’t think it was complicated.”
Shortly before press time on Monday, SAPOA president Michael Helle told the QueBlog that the city's insistence on making changes to the officers' health-care is unnecessary.
"For the last two years, our health-care has seen less than one percent growth, and there is no reason to change our plan," Helle said. "Considering national health-care trends, our growth is well below average."
As far as the city's demand being a "continuation" of changes made in the 2005 police and fire contracts, Helle said that, "precisely, those plan modifications are one of the major contributing factors why our health-care is flatlined. Why change it again?"
Even if the city had a case on the health-care issue, Helle sees no reason to delay the agreement because the existing contract (which expired on October 2009 but has a 10-year evergreen clause) has mechanisms that allow the city to renegotiate with the police association.
"It's certainly not the position of our organization that, if the city is in financial crisis, we're going to take that arm and twist it even further behind their backs," Helle said. "No, we're in this together."
The last of the meetings (which began in January 2009) took place in late September. Since then, both parties agreed to have discussions with their respective health-benefits consultants, but no new collective-bargaining sessions have taken place, and none are scheduled.
In addition to the health issue, Denton said “four or five” PERF recommendations were being discussed in the contract talks, “all of which were proposals by the City, and all have not currently been accepted by the association.” These included increasing the number of civilians in the Chief’s Advisory Action Board (made up of police officers and community members, the board reviews and makes recommendations on internal investigations), and the removal of the so-called veto provision by SAPOA.
“The City Council should select the civilian members of the Board without the involvement of the Police Officers Association,” reads page six of the PERF report. “Allowing a police labor group to effectively ‘veto’ potential board members is unusual and is detrimental to community trust in the process.”
Helle denies the claim that SAPOA refused to follow the PERF recommendations.
"I can't [be] 100 percent [sure], but pretty much we found middle ground to acommodate what the city was looking for on the PERF recommendations," Helle said.
Local civil- and human-rights activists are more concerned with those PERF recommendations than with the health-care negotiating. Out of the 36 PERF recommendations that the SAPD refused to follow (of a total of 141), three are particularly troublesome for the activists: the fact that the SAPD does not give citizens who file complaints copies of the reports, the use of tasers, and the fine print that indicates to complainants that perjury is a third-degree felony.
“The argument [SAPOA] gives us [to deny copies of the reports] are absurd,” said former councilman Mario Salas, who represented the San Antonio Coalition for Human and Civil Rights on the task force formed to negotiate the implementation of Internal Affairs-related PERF recommendations with the police union. “They tell us that they’re trying to protect the confidentiality of the police officer, and that’s not absurd. What is absurd is that when I suggested that the officer’s name be hidden so that the person making the complaint would still get a copy, they refused.”
The PERF recommendations don’t mention anything about giving report copies to complainants, but do suggest that, in these cases, “The procedure should include required notification of outcomes to the complainant.”
Just as important for the coalition is the issue of the “fine print” that warns complainants that lying is a third degree felony.
“Obviously, it’s been put in there to discourage people from filing complaints,” Salas said. “People are going to lie no matter what. But you can discourage people from telling the truth. It’s an old trick.”
Based on a standard November 2006 report named “Conducted Energy Devices: Development of Standards for Consistency and Guidance,” which was compared to current SAPD practices, the PERF report recommended “Establishing parameters on the number of CED [taser] activations permitted; Placing restrictions on CED use against visibly frail people; Requiring medical evaluation for all those subjected to CED use; Providing guidance regarding the duration of CED activation; Placing restrictions on multiple officers activating a CED on a person simultaneously; and, Establishing a requirement that a supervisor should respond to the scene of each CED activation.”
“That’s another one that came up,” said Salas. “ACLU was more into that than me, because they have statistics and stuff. I’m opposed to tasers, they should not be used, or they should be used only in very, very special circumstances. Anybody who is taking any type of medication is subject to death if they are tasered.” ACLU attorney Ed Piña couldn’t be reached for comment.
Among the 105 PERF recommendations Police Chief McManus agreed to follow are no more tasering of bicyclists, working in a required pause between taser jolts, and having Internal Investigations respond to all officer-involved shootings.
Finally, Salas is particularly upset at what he says is an SAPD practice of “throwing someone’s background check in their faces” whenever someone with a checkered past files a complaint against an officer.
“They’ll tell the person making the complaint, ‘You’ve been to prison, young man,” Salas said, “and you’re making an accusation against an SA police officer? How dare you!’ My position is nobody’s record should be checked when filing a complaint, and it ought to not even be mentioned. The fact that somebody has a record doesn’t mean they’re not telling the truth. That’s something you use to discredit someone in a court of law. It should not be used in a complaint process.”
Salas said he will soon meet for the first time with Mayor Castro, the son of a long-time acquaintance.
“I’ve known his mother for 35 years,” said Salas. “I saw her at the cleaners the other day, and I supported Julián for his campaign. He’s a pretty good guy, but this is a tough issue because the union doesn’t want to come clean with the public.”
When the QueBlog asked him about former Mayor Phil Hardberger, Salas sighed and recalled a 2008 meeting at Mount Zion First Baptist Church in which Hardberger, according to him, declared that he was in favor of citizens getting a copy of the complaint that they filed against the SAPD.
“He said that publicly, but he didn’t do anything that I know about it,” said Salas. “Maybe he did, but he didn’t communicate it to us. The Mayor came, [City Manager Sheryl L.] Sculley came, [SAPD Chief William] McManus came, members of the PERF committee were there, and they all agreed with everything that PERF had decided. Well, McManus didn’t agree with everything, of course. But Hardberger did, and I never saw him say or do anything else. He spoke nicely and, like a good politician, disappeared.”
Hardberger didn’t return a call from the QueBlog Thursday.
Despite his original skepticism about the PERF report, Salas admits that the results could’ve been a lot worse.
“I was extremely skeptical, but afterwards I thought they did a decent job,” he said. “In retrospect, I would have to say that part of the reason for doing a decent job is that many of these police officers in the PERF committees were police chiefs, and chiefs generally don’t belong to a union, they’re management. Oftentimes police chiefs tend to be a lot more fair than people who belong to the union.”
Still, only the City can pressure SAPOA into implementing the recommendations –– it won’t come voluntarily from the union.
“The city must find a way to put [the recommendations] in the contract and fight very aggressively for transparency at Internal Affairs. There’s like … a cult of secrecy around that place.”
The question is, will they? Why would Castro, who was endorsed by SAPOA on January 23, 2008, risk pissing off the powerful cop union by pressuring them to implement reforms they’ve already expressed a disagreement with?
“Endorsements don’t come easily,” said Helle, with then-candidate Castro at his side on the steps of City Hall. “We need to be aggressive to fight crime, and Julián will provide the forward thinking that we need, which will enable officers to do their jobs better.”
He then passed the mic to Castro, who pledged to turn San Antonio into “the safest big city in America.”
“We will make sure we give our officers the resources and equipment they need to fight crime,” said Castro, without specifying whether the “resources and equipment” included tasering or denying report copies to those who accuse police officers of excessive force.
In a statement sent Friday to the QueBlog, Mayor Castro said he is all for the PERF recommendations, “especially those that call for greater civilian participation on the citizens disciplinary review board.”
“I've made my perspective clear,” Castro added. “We are all in agreement – myself, the city manager and the City Council – that the review board needs greater citizen representation.”
Denton, the city’s chief negotiator, can’t understand those who doubt Castro’s commitment to the citizens.
“I don’t think [doubters] know what they’re talking about,” Denton said. “The city is absolutely committed to implementing those changes and reforms, and Mayor Castro is personally committed to implementing those reforms.
“I may be wrong about this,” continued Denton, “but I think if you ask the [police] union president, he’ll tell you that the proposed changes that came out of that PERF report, for the most part, would’ve been included in our new agreement if we could get past these other issues. He might not say that, but I think he would.”
He did. On Monday, January 11, Heller confirmed that the health-care issue is the only stumbling block threatening the negotiations but that the stubborn party is the city, not SAPOA.
"We've been leading the charge the whole way to make it happen," Helle told the QueBlog, "and basically [City Manager] Sheryl [Sculley] is coming up with a smoke screen regarding health-care, which has stalled everything."
To show SAPOA's good will, Helle said the police association has agreed, "for the first time ever," to have a zero percent salary increase for the first year in the new contract, to increase civilians (and even allow them to bring an observer if they want to) to the Chief’s Advisory Action Board, and to create a "dual role employee" that would dramatically improve response time for the department.
"I hear a lot of complaints from people waiting for hours on end for the police to show up, and that is embarrassing as hell," Helle said, explaining that the SAPD a "power shift" that would reduce waiting time and allow officers to both respond to calls and collect evidence.
"[In the past] we hired civilians, trained them [in evidence collecting], and they ended up quitting our department to work for another department that pays them 25 or 30 percent more," Helle said. "If your house is a total wreck after being burglarized, sometimes it takes up to six or eight hours for the police to show up to collect evidence because there's no one available. We want our officers to be able to do it all, and we all agreed to do it, but we can't do anything about it until we finalize the contract. And it's all because of the health-care issue."
“I think ultimately we’ll be able to achieve an agreement with [SAPOA],” assistant city manager Walsh said. “I know that for the [City] Manager and the Council it is a priority to get these issues resolved to the benefit not only of the citizens, but the employees themselves. We’ll get it done.”
"It's not that Sculley doesn't respect us or anything," Helle said. "I just disagree with her position. We hope to finally agree on everything. It's probably too late for January, but probably we'll start back up again on February. Our argument is: Quit trying to make a fire where there is none: There is nothing wrong with our [health] plan. Let's get our deal done."
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