After a few months of contract negotiations, the Boston Police Department’s largest union said it has reached an impasse with the city and that it may soon seek arbitration, potentially derailing one of Mayor Michelle Wu’s key strategies to carry out police reforms.
“The mayor’s office stopped negotiating and we came to a standstill, an impasse, on the topics that are on the table,” Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in an interview Friday. He said negotiations began in June, and that they reached a stalemate mid-September.
But a spokesperson for Wu said negotiations are not yet at gridlock, and that the city “is working urgently to negotiate with our unions while bringing community to the table to ensure their voices are heard and represented.”
The stakes are high. Contract negotiations can often become a prolonged affair, particularly in Boston, and Wu vowed in last year’s heated mayoral race to enact police reform through the union contract negotiation process. She declared during her campaign that she would “deliver structural changes that go beyond announcements or goals, and instead are embedded in the collective bargaining agreements with the city.”
Her 11-step plan for reform included diverting nonviolent 911 calls to alternative response teams, capping how much overtime officers can work, and requiring officers to proactively report data — by race, ethnicity, and neighborhood — on use of force, warrantless searches and seizures, and other police stops to “enable public accountability and trust.”
According to Calderone, the top priorities for the union include changing the 10-year residency requirement that mandates all officers must live in the city for at least a decade; adjusting the number of days officers are expected to work in a row; and making sure the financial incentives for officers to pursue higher education are consistent across the department’s ranks.
The city, meanwhile, is pushing changes to the disciplinary process for officers involved in misconduct, as well as curbing excessive overtime by revising the policy for officers deemed medically incapacitated, and reducing “union release time,” a provision in which the city pays for officers to attend collective bargaining and grievance sessions.
A key issue for both parties, however, is the controversial question of what are known as police details — additional hours officers work, often at higher pay, supervising traffic safety, usually around construction sites. Critics of the policy say civilians should be able to work details, which they argue could create much-needed job opportunities, but police officials have refused to let go of the responsibility, saying officers play a crucial public safety role.
The issue was at the center of a heated City Council hearing Monday that saw tensions flare among councilors, community members, and police. At one point, in response to Calderone exceeding the five-minute limit for oral testimony, councilors walked out while he was speaking.
“If you subtract the average construction detail pay from the average total pay among officers who work details, these officers are still making over $150,000 a year,” said Mallory Hanora, who represented the nonprofit organization Families for Justice as Healing at the hearing. “Icing on the cake for cops could be food on the table for more families,” she said.
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief of streets, said at the hearing that the city suffers from a shortage of officers to complete detail assignments, even when police are ordered to work overtime to fill an empty spot. He said the city needs to find a way to close the gap.
“I would like to be able to see full staffing of details at construction projects where active traffic management is essential for public safety,” he said. But, “The problem that we face is that many construction details go unfilled.”
In total, Boston police officers earned more than $24 million in detail pay last year, accounting for roughly 6 percent of total income, according to city payroll records. One of the ways Wu envisioned police reform during her campaign was by changing the contract to allow civilians to work details, a move also championed by City Councilors Kendra Lara and Kenzie Bok.
“Our constituents want to be able to work, and they want to be able to have well paying jobs, and they see the places where there’s … workforce development opportunity, and they want to fight for it,” Lara said in an interview Friday.
However, other city councilors, including Council President Ed Flynn, view the urgent demand to fill detail slots as a call to hire more police officers. Calderone said the union has also proposed an alternative system that would allow details to be filled by Boston police retirees, local university police, or officers from other departments.
Although the City Council has no authority to pass a law permitting civilians to work details, because it is a provision in the union contract that must be collectively bargained, Bok said changes to the contract could open up that possibility in the future.
The City Council also has the authority to approve or reject the union contract, which could give councilors some sway in setting the tone for negotiations. The council has not rejected a police contract in recent history, though it voted once to reject a contract for firefighters more than a decade ago.
Mike Ross, who was City Council president the year the panel rejected the firefighters’ contract and sent it back to arbitration, said the arbitration process was intended to have an independent moderator strike a compromise between the union and the city. But, he added, the process is widely considered to be more favorable to unions than to municipal governments. In 2013, for instance, the council approved an arbitrator’s ruling that gave police a graduated 25 percent pay increase, over the objections of then-Mayor Thomas Menino.
“Sometimes a party will stall at the negotiating table, knowing they’ll get a better deal at arbitration,” Ross said. “That was exactly the case with the firefighters. ... They went to the arbitration and they got an enormous award.”
Last week, Calderone said the overall bargaining process with city negotiators has been cordial, at least compared with past years. But he said he still intends to file a request soon with the state’s Joint Labor-Management Committee to appoint an independent arbitrator. It is a process that could take months.