In June 2020, in the weeks after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, more than 200 Houstonians signed up to speak at a city council meeting on police reform. They gave hours of testimony, many criticizing the police department’s nearly $1 billion budget and the way the city handles police misconduct.
But most of the changes they asked for can only happen during the time when the city renegotiates its contract with the police officers union, and the city and the union chose not to renegotiate the contract when it expired at the end of 2020.
Now both sides have agreed to a new contract, after four months of closed-door negotiations. Around 70% of union members voted in favor, though the city hasn’t yet made the document available to the public. Houston and San Antonio announced new police union contracts just days apart, though San Antonio negotiations were done for the public to see, while Houstonians didn’t know negotiations were taking place.
“We are explicitly choosing to hide this process that not only controls how we respond when people are killed in Houston, but also controls hundreds of millions of dollars of our city spending,” said Jaison Oliver, a community organizer with the ImagiNoir/BLMHTX Collective and one of those who spoke at the 2020 meeting. “Hundreds of millions of dollars, that is just kind of taken out of the normal budget process when these types of contracts are approved in secret. So not only is City Council left out of the loop, but the public is left out of the loop.”
Community organizers have asked members of the Turner administration for a public presentation on the police union contract, Oliver said. So far, that hasn’t happened.
In San Antonio and Austin, negotiations are open to the public. San Antonio negotiations are livestreamed and archived online. Austin advocates have an opportunity to participate. In Houston, none of that happens.
Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston police officers union, said he doesn’t see a need for more transparency.
“I think if everybody did it the way we do it, it would be a very quick process across the board, and better things would get done,” Griffith said. “Nobody wants to look like the weak link in that room. And when you’ve got a whole bunch of people in there, they’re less likely to give on things. And that’s on both sides.”
However, the secrecy of the negotiations also meant details were unclear regarding a potential conflict of interest on Houston City Council, which is expected to vote on the HPOU contract in the coming weeks.
Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman just won the Jan. 25 special election to represent District G. In addition to serving on the council, Huffman works as an attorney for the police officers union, representing officers when there are complaints levied against them.
“We help the officers prepare their responses for those types of questioning,” Huffman said. “A lot of times, it’s in a written format – they’ll send a letter with questions that the officer will answer, and then we’ll revise and help them do that. But sometimes these officers get called in for oral interviews, and so we go with them to the oral interviews, and help prepare them to answer questions that we think that they might ask, just based on other cases that we’ve seen.”
Her job also involves responding to complaints from officers who say they aren’t being treated fairly, and going to the scene when police shoot someone or when someone dies in custody.
To avoid a conflict of interest between her council position and her job at HPOU, Huffman said she’s staying in communication with City Attorney Arturo Michel about issues related to the union that could come to council for a vote.
“(Michel) said, ‘I’ll be on the lookout for that, too. And we can kind of just talk back and forth, so if you see something on the agenda that you have concerns about, or I see something on the agenda that I have concerns about, we can talk about it and then you can decide whether or not it would be appropriate for you to vote or to recuse yourself,’” Huffman said.
Critics like Oliver have questioned Huffman’s ability to vote later this year on the city’s annual budget, a large section of which is devoted to police department spending, without a conflict of interest.
For the upcoming vote on the HPOU contract, Huffman said she plans to recuse herself, and was not involved in the original negotiations.
“There’s one attorney in our office (who) handles all things contracts,” she said. “But yes, that will be something that I will not be voting on.”
In fact, no council members were present during negotiations, despite a letter five council members sent to the mayor in 2020 outlining their police reform recommendations, one of which was a request to include a council member at the HPOU contract negotiation table. The city doesn’t involve council members in HPOU negotiations and the mayor’s office did not confirm exactly who was in the room.
“The negotiation was handled the same as it has been in the past, with a team led by Mayor Turner,” read a statement from Turner spokesperson Mary Benton, citing the city’s legal department.
Griffith, the union president, said he expects the council to unanimously approve the contract. He pointed to a change in the new contract that gives the city more time to investigate alleged police misconduct incidents.
Under a modification to what’s known as the 180-day rule, the city will have until 180 days from the date the alleged infraction was reported to issue discipline, instead of 180 days from the date the incident occurred. A similar change was made in San Antonio’s new contract, as well.
The change was added after a request from the mayor’s task force on policing reform.
“We didn’t believe that should be an issue for anyone, including our officers,” Griffith said. “No one’s above the law, and we don’t want someone coming to work that shouldn’t be here.”