Now that the San Francisco Police Department has received a September budget cut of around $37 million over the next two years — a major disappointment for some reform advocates hoping for more than a 5 percent decrease — efforts are turning to another battlefield of police reform: Limiting the power of the police union.
It may be an uphill battle.
Specifically at issue is the pending approval by the Board of Supervisors of a tentative agreement between the city and the San Francisco Police Officers Association that would cancel a 3-percent officer pay raise next year — but would guarantee a 6-percent wage increase for the following two years.
The problem, reform advocates say, is the deal could be finalized without conditions tied to reform — including the union’s ability to use its collective bargaining power to delay or meddle with new policies. Advocates want the Board of Supervisors to reject the existing deal and condition approval on the inclusion of clear boundaries on what policies the police union can bargain over. They see this as a test of the board’s sincerity in wanting police reform.
The board’s Government Audit and Oversight committee will discuss the matter on Thursday. Although it is listed on the agenda as being in closed session, an aide to Supervisor Gordon Mar, who chairs the committee said, a “bulk of the discussion will happen in public.”
In August, it came to light that the police union and the Department of Human Resources — one that is now under siege for the way in which it has treated Black and Latinx employees — conducted under-the-radar negotiations and reached a tentative agreement to defer raises now for heftier raises later.
Moreover, that agreement strictly focuses on officer compensation — and not on reforms, as the city had insisted on during the last round of negotiations in 2018. Despite the city’s efforts during that round of negotiations, an arbitration board ruled 2-1 in favor of the union’s bid to exclude binding reform provisions in the police officer contract.
This year, and to the dismay of reform advocates, the city did not even attempt to incorporate such provisions.
“They decided to handle this as a strictly economic proposal — to reverse what they did two years ago and to run counter to what is going on nationally; namely, this recognition that you have to address reform in police union contracts,” said John Crew, a police reform advocate and former ACLU attorney who has been observing police reform in San Francisco for decades.
Indeed, as calls for reform have grown louder in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, there has been a renewed focus on how cities negotiate with police unions. In August, the United States Conference of Mayors made a clear recommendation in a report aimed at police reform: “Cities should stop the practice of bargaining away management rights as a trade-off for raises sought by police unions.”
In September, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago acted on that recommendation and conditioned a four-year, 10 percent pay raise for officers on 40 reforms concerning the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary process. Talks are ongoing.
But that kind of hard bargaining has not happened in San Francisco.
Mayor London Breed pushed for no reform stipulations in the proposed contracts that would guarantee police raises until 2023. Jeff Cretan, Breed’s spokesman, said that the mayor is “committed to continuing her efforts to implement meaningful police reform, but we also have a significant budget challenge, which only worsens every day due to Covid-19 impacts, that we are trying to address.”
Cretan explained that the mayor’s office helped negotiate the delay in wage increases to help address the city’s gaping $1.5 billion deficit, and if the supes turn down the deal, the city is on the hook for paying a 2 percent wage increase to officers at the end of the year as their present contract stipulates — and, possibly, another 1 percent raise come July if no deal is reached.
That, however, might be better than obligating the city to two more years of a 6 percent a year raise until 2023, advocates said.
Moreover, Breed’s spokesman argued, there was little the mayor could ask for in exchange for a raise.
Police Commission’s policies, he said, “govern most of the day-to-day issues” on use of force policies and the availability and use of equipment, such as Tasers. And the meet and confer option comes from state, not city laws, he said.
But advocates say those laws are being applied too loosely, and that is where Breed could bargain to narrow when it could be used.
In a detailed letter sent to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 22, Stuart Plunkett, the president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, argued the police union was abusing that right to meet and confer over policies — and the Department of Human Resources was voluntarily giving the union a crack at policies that are not fair game for bargaining.
For example, the police union delayed a policy around police shootings by demanding a meet-and-confer session that endured for two-and-a-half years without making substantial changes.
“Since reform efforts began in 2016, SFPOA has exploited this practice repeatedly to delay management reforms that never should have been the subject of collective bargaining in the first place,” Plunkett wrote.
Overall, Plunkett argues, the union’s free reign over the process has allowed it to water down policies and delay their implementation.
The Bar Association also argued that state law does not prevent the meet-and-confer sessions from being held in public. Plunkett noted that Texas state law requires such negotiations to take place in public, and pressure from Austin community groups in 2017 resulted in changes to their police department’s disciplinary system.
Defund SFPD Now, a group formed in the wake of Floyd’s death and the ascendant “defund the police” movement, has been pressuring supervisors to reject the current proposal — even if it means giving the police an immediate 2 percent raise.
“Of course, we don’t think police deserve any raises but, at the same time, we’re presented with this terrible option,” said Jamie Chen, a member of the group. “But clearly it’s better to have these raises now, and then have meaningful changes to policing policy that can actually make our communities safer — instead of just accepting three more years of this continued brutality and trauma.”
It remains unclear how the supervisors will respond to advocates’ demands at Thursday’s meeting.
Edward Wright, an aide to Supervisor Mar, said the supervisor is looking forward to having a discussion “about the thresholds and the constraints we operate under when we talk about” the power of the union to meet and confer over policies.
While “we’re all interested in seeing reform happen at SFPD,” Wright added, “the Board of Supervisors has to operate within the constraints of the city charter and state law in how we handle MOUs when they come before us.”
While that may well be true, advocates say the board can condition ratification of the contract on the inclusion of boundaries around collective bargaining.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin signaled in August that a contract without reform concessions was a non-starter. “There is no way on God’s Earth that I am going to trade a contract extension for a wage concession without a meeting of the minds on police reform,” Peskin told the Examiner in August. “I am happy to trade money for public safety and community trust.”
Last Thursday, Peskin reiterated to Mission Local that this “absolutely” remains his position on the matter.
But in a brief text exchange, Supervisor Shamann Walton, who previously spoke out against the deal and who represents the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, remained apprehensive about conditioning raises on reform.
“I would love to tie the contract to reform,” he said. But it’s “not something we can do right now.”
Asked why, he merely said that “laws” stood in the way, and “that type of reform has to be done through negotiations.”
Though he declined to elaborate on which laws were prohibitive and specifically why that kind of reform had to be done through negotiations, he feared that if the supervisors rejected the current deal and negotiations stalled, the “POA may get a better deal through arbitration, because they will not take into account the injustices of people of color at the hands of law enforcement.”
“They will only look at economics.”
But Crew rejected the notion that the supes should fear the arbitration process right now — as it would not be triggered unless negotiations stall and the contract expires on June 30 of next year.
Furthermore, Crew said that the city should stop fearing the police union. After meeting and conferring over this year’s Proposition E, a measure on police staffing levels, Supervisor Norman Yee simply ended the negotiations and put it on the ballot. The union never sued, even after the City Attorney advised Yee to continue meeting with the union. The measure passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday.
Moreover, in July, the Police Commission voted to restrict officers from kneeling on the necks of subjects — without meeting with the union. Although the POA threatened to sue, it never did.
If the supes end up approving the deal without reform provisions, Crew added, then their stated solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and their shock over nationwide police abuse could come off as merely performative.
“It’s basically the equivalent of Republicans saying ‘thoughts and prayers’ after the next mass shooting.”