Future still cloudy for airport and park police

While the San Antonio Police Department recently negotiated a fairly cushy contract with the City (CLEAT, the legal association that represented the SA police officers association in negotiations even brags about â??the top of the line' deal on their web site homepage), the San Antonio park police and airport police still wonder whether their jobs will exist when their own contract expires in 2013. Their worries were heightened by a recent decision by the City to fill open positions in airport police with private security rather than new officers.

A forlorn source in park police, who asked not to be identified for job security reasons, contacted The Current shortly after we reported on the SAPD contract. While that agreement, which passed in May after more than a year of negotiations, assures wage increases of two percent in the upcoming fiscal year and three percent each year after until the contract expires in 2014, park and airport police saw their wages frozen, including the step pay rates they thought were guaranteed in the meet and confer agreement their bargaining unit signed in 2008.

The agreement, denounced by many park and airport police advocates, put 190 airport, park, and code enforcement officers under SAPD management, but left them out of the police officers association bargaining unit that determines many aspects of officer life from salary to hours worked to legal representation. In 2009, Ron DeLord, a CLEAT lawyer who represents both SAPD and the park and airport police bargaining unit, met with the City to try to improve the meet-and-confer terms. “Over one year ago, the City came to the airport and park police and asked to be allowed to transfer airport police officers to the park police department,” says Jim Caruso, president of the Airport Police Officers Association. “We said yes, but we want to secure internal rights, seniority and uniform allowances. The City turned us down.” DeLord says ever since, “we've been at an impasse with the City.” According to DeLord, the airport and park police want some of the same legal benefits afforded to SAPD, who have a discipline appeals process separate from the City, while park and airport police must appeal via the municipal civil service commission. Assistant City Manager Erik Walsh said, “I'd characterize it differently, an impasse means there's no existing agreement,” and pointed out that the meet-and-confer agreement is “nothing new.” About the stalled efforts to renegotiate the agreement, Walsh said “They wanted to make changes to `the agreement` and we were open to making changes,” but what the bargaining unit asked for, “we were really weren't interested in.”

Meanwhile, consolidation rumors continue to swirl (and drag moral down) at the airport and park police offices. While the meet-and-confer did manage to save the jobs of officers hired prior to the spring of 2008, “I can tell you exactly what's going to happen in 2013,” Caruso said. “The City will fire the airport police and replace it with full-time SAPD officers.” He and others believe that goes for park police, too. When the meet and confer contract expires in September, 2013, “all those provisions go up in smoke,” said Caruso. “The City of San Antonio has no intentions of going back to the table.”

As proof of his suspicions, Caruso can point to the recent City directive he said his department received to keep eight positions open. An outside consultant recommended that the City reduce number of airport police officers in favor of private security, said Walsh, noting that many airport police duties are consistent with FAA and TSA training that national security firms can provide. However, Caruso said, “they're replacing qualified, certified peace officers,” and losing the psychological deterrent of an armed police officer in the terminal to prevent theft and other crimes.

Caruso claimed the City's reasoning was that they could hire 1.5 security officers for every airport police officer. But beyond that, budget concerns become a murky motive. Starting salary for airport and park police is nearly $10,000 less than for SAPD officers after cadet service. To replace these officers with SAPD would appear to cost the City more, but whether it will balance out with saved costs in training and management efficiency remains unclear. “SAPD officers cost a lot more to do the same job,” said Caruso. Both have TCLEOSE license. Park police and airport police generally view their duties as proactive, meaning their presence deters crime, while they say SAPD is fundamentally reactive, more conditioned to respond to crime after it's occurred. Much of their education is the same, minus SAPD's more rigorous physical training requirements. In the SAPD general manual, it lists under jurisdiction, “park police officers direct their primary enforcement activities to designated parklands of the City, are available to respond to calls for police service within the City as dispatched by SAPD, and take enforcement action on those incidents occurring within their presence or view throughout the City.” Specifically, park police officers have the authority to investigate third degree felonies and lower crimes, non-fatal accidents or crimes, plus parking, ordinance and transportation code violations. Our source in the park police also said they frequently help out SAPD with nearby police calls, too. “Why would the City want to get rid of us?” asked our source.

“They are nervous about their jobs, there's a lot of uncertainty,” said DeLord. Walsh maintains the City has been upfront about a transfer of airport and park duties to SAPD. Walsh said the City, which meets with airport and park police on a quarterly basis, has been open with the bargaining unit. “They know at some point we're looking at transitioning those responsibilities,” he said. Rather than a mass-firing of the department in 2013, Walsh said the City is likely looking to downsize the existing departments through attrition. “Our goal is not to eliminate people's jobs and then replace them,” said Walsh. “If that's your plan, then you need to tell everybody that's your plan,” countered DeLord, “these officers need to know honestly what their long-term prospects are.”

Park police have a small ray of light, at least until 2013. Due to the new linear creekways opening around San Antonio, an announcement went up last week that the City is hiring, for park police officers.

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