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After Thorny Debate, Supervisors Approve Plan for Police Raises

  • The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a labor agreement with the Police Department, which defers a 3% raise in the current budget cycle in exchange for a 6% raise in two years

  • The plan saves San Francisco $13 million over the next two fiscal years, and is one of two side agreements hammered out to save the City money in the short term as it deals with the COVID economic crisis

  • Police reform advocates criticized the raise deal, arguing that negotiators should have extracted deeper reforms in a year marked by scrutiny of law enforcement

  • The debate shines a light on the complexities of labor negotiations, with standards like "meet and confer" enshrined in state law and subject to legal challenges

The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 Tuesday to approve an extended contract for the City’s police department, marking the end of a heated months-long public debate over the negotiations.

This summer, in an effort to close a massive budget gap brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the City negotiated with some of its employee unions to defer raises, but it was the deal with the Police Officers’ Association (POA) that drew attention. Ultimately, the association agreed to delay raises that would have kicked in at the end of this year. In exchange, the City extended their contract from June 2021 to June 2023 with guaranteed 3 percent raises in each of those years.

That didn’t sit well with advocates for police reform, especially in a year when repeated killings of Black and brown Americans led to months of protests and demands to reform or even defund the police.

San Francisco is no exception. A 2016 Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the City’s police department found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups,” and came up with 272 recommended reforms. A March 2020 progress report found the department was compliant with less than 15 percent of them, three and a half years later.

For police reform advocates in San Francisco, the two-year extension of a largely unchanged police contract delays a critical opportunity for the City to negotiate for reform.

“If we’re serious about reforming this department, that’s not going to happen if [the Department of Human Resources] and the mayor continue to offer more pay raises to the POA without asking for anything significant other than a brief deferral of this fiscal year’s raises,” said Supervisor Dean Preston at a Nov. 17 board meeting. “We did this before. We gave them three years, annual raises at 3 percent, and here we are.”

Several San Francisco supervisors balked at the city’s deal and complained that they weren’t notified about the negotiations early enough to give input. Ultimately, though, only Preston and Supervisor Hillary Ronen voted against the raise agreement.

The police raise deferments save the City $7.1 million in this fiscal year and $6.2 million in the next during an unprecedented economic crisis. In October, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed agreed on a contentious, precariously balanced budget that included regularly scheduled raises for the majority of City employees. Those raises go into effect in late December, and rejecting the police deal would have meant a last-minute budget scramble. With the City facing a protracted recession, Breed has warned that layoffs are possible without raise deferrals.

The short-term savings, and prospect of layoffs, led some reluctant supervisors to approve the police agreement, although some expressed doubts that police raise deferrals alone would stave off layoffs in light of the City’s much greater overall budget deficit.

But even in a financial crunch, it doesn't feel like a worthwhile trade-off to some critics given the political moment.

“The POA is historically unpopular right now,” says Jamie Chen, an organizer with the Defund SFPD Now campaign, pointing to the loss of the POA’s campaign against District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the refusal by most City supervisors to take campaign donations from the organization. “They're in such an incredibly weak position, and this is just an absolute sweetheart deal that gives them everything they want, locks in the status quo, and is just an enormous missed opportunity at such a critical time.”

As a compromise, some supervisors conditioned their final approval of the contract on the City reaching an additional side deal with the Police Officers’ Association. This week, negotiators signed two agreements, including one diverting certain calls from the police to mental health and other professionals. Most supervisors were apparently satisfied, but critics called the deals “window dressing,” per the San Francisco Examiner.

City officials say they take police reform seriously, pointing to recent moves to prevent officers with a history of misconduct from being hired, and a plan to divert $40 million in each of the next two years from the $700 million proposed annual police budget to programs that support the city’s Black residents.

And while the mayoral administration is supportive of advocates’ reforms in this case, it contends they are matters of policy, which shouldn’t bleed into labor agreements and instead remain under the purview of the Police Commission.

“The POA’s [Memorandum of Understanding] speaks to wages, it speaks to benefits, it speaks to bidding on shifts, it speaks to assignments,” Acting Human Resources Director Carol Isen said at the November board hearing. “The way police wages are set, the way all wages are set in the city, is by the labor market conditions. Those are the criteria in our charter…We were asked to get agreements out of the unions where we could to delay wage increases to assist with a financial problem.”

“She's not wrong, but it's also not impossible to do what I gather critics are suggesting. A labor agreement between a union and an employer can cover any topic that the parties want,” notes Catherine Fisk, a law professor at University of California, Berkeley, who teaches labor and employment law.

Arguably, policy already bleeds into labor negotiations when it comes to law enforcement. An August 2020 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that certain provisions in police bargaining agreements, like arbitration clauses, can have the effect of diluting reforms.

“Over the years, police contracts—union CBAs—have evolved into much more than standard labor contracts. They cover the expected areas—hours, wages, benefits—but many have grown to include substantial barriers to basic accountability,” according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors report. “We want to make sure that our officers have due process rights, but CBAs often contain provisions that go far beyond what is necessary to protect those rights. Some provisions look innocuous on their face, but they can severely impair a department’s legitimate need to investigate allegations of police officer misconduct and hold officers accountable.”

These concerns have led advocates, policymakers, and experts, including Fisk, to explore how reforming labor relations could help force greater accountability and transparency in law enforcement. One local proposal, which Supervisor Ronen plans to introduce in the coming weeks, would require bargaining sessions with police to be held in public.

In San Francisco, advocates have long criticized the police’s use of the “meet and confer” process. “Meet and confer” is a standard requirement protected by state law in the City’s labor agreements with its workers, not just police. It requires management to give notice and consult with employee organizations if they want to make changes that will affect working conditions.

But critics have alleged that the POA has routinely overused and drawn out the “meet and confer” process to block or delay reforms, and that there hasn’t been enough pushback from the City. For instance, a policy introduced by the Police Commission, which prevents officers from viewing body camera footage before giving a statement about a shooting or in-custody death, was held up in negotiations for 2.5 years before finally being approved in October. In its review of SFPD, the DOJ even suggested a “review of the meet-and-confer process to identify ways to improve input and expedite the process.”

“There are reasons to treat police labor relations differently because police officers, unlike school teachers, carry guns and have the power to detain people, shoot people,” said Fisk. “And so it's quite sensible to think that their labor relations, at least with respect to using force, searching, arresting, detaining, et cetera, is of greater public interest and should be approached differently than nurses or teachers.”

The City is constrained to an extent by state law. When the POA's contract was last up in 2018, the Department of Human Resources did try to shorten the negotiation process for the DOJ’s recommended reforms, but the provision was struck down by the state arbitration board. For the City, cutting negotiations short also raises the specter of legal challenges by the POA a daunting undertaking, particularly if it means reversing course on a policy that’s already been rolled out.

In 2016, after the City declared an impasse in negotiations and moved forward with two policies that banned officers from using chokeholds or restricted shooting at moving vehicles, the POA sued the city for unfair labor practices. The POA ultimately lost their case when the courts ruled the policies were indeed managerial decisions outside the scope of “meet and confer” requirements.

Advocates say the pathway to avoiding lengthy negotiations and legal battles over potential reforms lies in the City using labor contracts to clarify and limit the scope of which issues can go to “meet and confer” in the first place.

“The changes I want to see are the ones that open up the future,” Chen said. “And that's what I think scoping meet and confer is.”

During the hearings, Police Chief Bill Scott, who has expressed some openness to significant reform, acknowledged the slow pace of change in the past but said they’re now “in a really good place.” He noted that while the department was only in compliance with 40 of the 272 DOJ recommendations by this point last year, they are now in compliance with 94 and have another 49 under review.

Still, even seemingly small policy changes have proved slow to implement. Policies requiring officers to provide language aids to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and instructing officers to handcuff deaf people in front of their bodies so they can more easily communicate, took almost three years to formulate and get tentative approval, and even then, had to go through “meet and confer.”


Image by Jake Buonemani
Image by Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup

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