Criminal Justice

City Council voted to approve the Houston police union contract, despite transparency concerns

Two council members tried to push the vote back before ultimately approving the contract.

A police vehicle outside of Memorial Hermann Hospital on Jan. 27, 2022.

Houston city council voted unanimously to approve the city’s contract with the Houston Police Officers’ Union after failing to pass a motion to delay the vote for two weeks.

Members of the public called for the Houston City Council to delay its vote on the contract until it votes on the rest of the city’s budget in June, while Council Member Tarsha Jackson moved to delay the vote for two weeks to allow the public to have time to review it.

“We have to change how we do business,” Jackson said. “We have to be more inclusive.”

Jackson’s motion failed, with only Letitia Plummer joining her in a vote to push back the contract. Both ultimately joined the rest of the council in the contract’s final approval vote.

Council members Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh, who both supported the contract, said delaying the vote would go against rules in the city charter prohibiting the council from being involved in police contract negotiations.

The contract was negotiated behind closed doors over a four-month period with a team led by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the police union. Turner defended the process, arguing that contracts between the city and the union have always been negotiated in the same way. He added that he believed the contract was fair to all parites.

“Two weeks from now, you’re going to see the same deal before you,” he said. “Nothing is going to change.”

Community members and activists argue the current process lacks transparency.

“It’s unacceptable that it was negotiated in secret,” said Stephanie Villanueva, a caller during the city council’s public comment period on Tuesday.

Villanueva and community organizer Jaison Oliver asked the city council to delay the vote and have a presentation on the contract during the council’s public safety committee meeting, which would be open to the public. That presentation would give the public the opportunity to review the contract and have questions answered, something Oliver said the public deserves.

HPOU President Douglas Griffith rejected criticism over transparency.

“We’re an open book,” Griffith said. “There’s nothing hard about the contract or nothing hidden in the contract.”

Other cities in Texas — including San Antonio and Austin — settle the terms of their police contracts publicly. Griffith argued the contract the union negotiated with the mayor is now available to the public online, but critics at Tuesday’s public comment session said the contract isn’t easily accessible on HPOU’s website.

The contract includes details on how to spend part of a nearly $1 billion budget for the Houston Police Department. it includes a 4% pay raise for police officers starting in July and an amendment to the 180-day rule that gives the city more time to investigate allegations of police misconduct, something the mayor’s task force on police reform had recommended.

Despite that rule change, critics of the contract say it falls short on making meaningful change to address police misconduct and accountability issues.

“There’s no public safety if police are able to keep their jobs after injuring or killing our community members,” said Lauren Johnson, a policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas. “There’s no public safety when police misconduct is nearly impossible to punish.”

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