After failing to reach an agreement with the city over pay raises, take-home patrol cars and the ways officers are investigated, the Salt Lake City police union has declared an impasse.
The move came in late May, just one day after the death of George Floyd ignited protests and calls for police reform across the country, including in Salt Lake City. Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the City Council decided to keep the current police union contract in place for another year and reopen negotiations next spring. But Steven Winters, president of the Salt Lake City Police Association, said he’s frustrated with a continual “kicking the can down the road.”
“I asked to negotiate last August,” Winters said. Back then, there was ”no pandemic. No rioting. No earthquake, none of these things were happening ... but they dragged their heels.”
A spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department said he could not comment on the impasse since union negotiations are between the union and the city.
Emails and documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show the police union hit a stalemate with almost all of its demands.
The biggest grievance, which Winters presented to the City Council more than a year ago, came down to pay. Compensation isn’t keeping pace with other police departments on the Wasatch Front, Winters said, which causes Salt Lake City officers to leave for other agencies.
“They turn staff over and they’re OK doing that,” Winters said. “They’re balancing the budget on the backs of officers.”
The city contracted with the consulting firm Mercer last year to conduct a survey of public safety salaries and compare them with similar U.S. cities, which the union helped select. The results showed police wages were comparable with other markets, although minimums tended to be higher than other places and high-level positions tend to be underpaid.
The council approved raises for police in its budget last year, including a 6% increase for the highest-paid officers. But with this year’s pandemic and economic uncertainty, the mayor and City Council are holding firm on a pay freeze for all employees, including police.
The city offered the police association (SLPA), as well as the unions for firefighters and other city workers, the option to reopen pay raise discussions in December when the financial impacts from the coronavirus become clearer.
“SLPA wasn’t pleased with that response and continued to push on salary,” said Rachel Otto, the mayor’s chief of staff.
SLPA also took issue with the city’s fee for officers to take home their patrol vehicles. The city allows officers to drive home their city-owned vehicles if they pay $3 per mile outside city limits, maxing out at $105 each pay period.
“That is an astronomical amount of money,” Winters said, adding that it’s important for officers to have their patrol cars at home. “Frankly, under emergency situations, how do you activate officers if they can’t get to you? It’s clearly in the best interests of citizens, of the department, city, county and state.”
By comparison, city information shows the Unified Police Department allows officers to take home vehicles at no cost as long as they don’t drive more than 35 miles from the center of Salt Lake County and don’t use the vehicle for personal reasons outside the county.
But the Mercer survey found that in other markets, only police chiefs are allowed a take-home car or that take-home cars were only allowed based on availability.
During negotiations, city officials explained that the take-home vehicle fee is part of city code and cannot be changed under a police union contract.
As the budgetary toll of the pandemic became clear, Winters said he was willing to concede on pay raises and patrol cars. But he wasn’t willing to budge on changes to internal affairs.
Internal affairs is the process the police department uses to investigate and discipline its officers.
“With us, internal affairs is judge, jury and executioner,” Winters said. “That’s principally not fair.”
In a May 20 email to city negotiators, Winters wrote that he wanted internal affairs to notify both the union and the officer under scrutiny during a pending investigation. He wanted any possible punishments to be included with the complaint. He wanted the union to be able to review evidence before the officer’s interview. He wanted the officer or union to be allowed a 10-day extension of the predisciplinary hearing when requested, and he wanted the officer and union to be able to interview witnesses before or during that hearing.
In a letter the following day, a city attorney said the union’s demands to review evidence and interview witnesses would compromise the integrity of the investigation and “are not required by (and in some aspects are contrary to) applicable law.”
The negotiator said the city was willing to discuss notifications of pending investigations and an extension of the hearings.
Beyond internal affairs reforms, Winters wanted to allocate 20 hours of his workweek to union duties instead of 10 hours. The city negotiators denied this request, noting that allowing the union president to spend half his city-paid work on noncity business did not represent “the best use of taxpayer funds.”
On May 26, Winters wrote the city a brief email.
“At this point in negotiation, the SLCPA Board does not see any improvement in the salary and [contract] talks and therefore we are declaring an IMPASSE,” he said.
Despite the email’s wording, Winters said the decision wasn’t about pay raises.
“I didn’t argue for more money. I stopped asking for money. That wasn’t the reason for the impasse,” he said. “The impasse was because they weren’t willing to negotiate on anything else.”
But Otto, with the mayor’s office, said the union presented moving targets during negotiations.
“Their major request was on salary increases,” Otto said. “It was rather late in the order of operation that the union shifted their main sticking point to this complaint about the internal affairs process.”
The second sticking point, Otto said, was Winters’ request to spend more of his paid time on union duties.
“We found that to be unpalatable, unacceptable and not in practice with what we do with other unions in the city,” she said.
The mayor recommended the city continue with its current police union contract until June, which means the city won’t renegotiate pay raises at the end of the year, even if the financial situation improves. The City Council approved the mayor’s proposal on June 16.
Over the next year, the City Council will audit and scrutinize the police budget due to a flood of demands from residents that they defund or reform the department.
Chris Wharton, the council chairman, said the city’s reforms won’t impact officer pay.
“They’re going to be compensated with what they’re entitled to. The audit is more about decisions [regarding] where we assign police officers and how we spend money on programs,” Wharton said.
Still, Wharton said, once the city reopens negotiations with the police union in the next several months, the City Council welcomes input on issues like officer discipline and employee rights.
“We want to have feedback from the public, whether that feedback helps inform the mayor’s side or the council’s side,” Wharton said. “That’s an area where both branches of government need to work together to create the kind of changes the public is calling for and improvements in the system.”