The Denver Police Department’s union and Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration have settled on a collective bargaining agreement — one that includes a pay raise for police officers in 2022 — but the two parties still lack one critical piece to move it forward: the support of the Denver City Council.
The two-year contract comes at a time when community members and many elected officials are calling for systemic change in policing, a debate happening in cities across the country after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was died in the custody of white Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Changes range from moving more DPD resources into social services to abolishing the department altogether.
As is written now, the bargaining agreement would suspend salary increases for 2021, halt holiday pay provisions for 10 holidays and reduce the city’s annual contribution to the Denver Police Retiree Health Fund by $360,000. By taking those steps, the city — which faces a budget gap of $227 million due to the pandemic — would save $4.96 million next year. The reduction equates to about a 3% decrease in pay for officers, which falls in line with other city agency employees who were forced by the Hancock administration to take eight unpaid furlough days through the end of the year, a request that did not extend to police.
“Absent this $5M savings, other City agencies would be forced to make even deeper cuts to meet the Charter requirement for a balanced budget, and the City would see greater adverse service impacts, additional employee impacts or both,” Hancock wrote in a letter sent to council members Aug. 14.
Yet, what was taken away in 2021 would be restored in 2022.
The agreement — which was molded during closed-door negotiations that began in July — shows not only a 2.77% pay raise that year, but also the creation of a one-time 100-hour bank to be used like vacation leave.
The Denver Police Protective Association, DPD’s union, agreed in writing that, should the economic situation not rebound, “all that needs to be done is for the City to reopen this contract — as has been done more than once in the past — and we will partner to make sure we always do our part to make this City strong again.”
But not all Denver City Council members are buying, as evidenced on Wednesday, when the bargaining agreement was presented to the body's seven-member safety committee.
After a 2½-hour debate, the group agreed to refer the contract to the floor of City Council to give all members an opportunity to weigh in. The odds of it passing are slim, however, and it will likely be sent back to the negotiating table. (Committees do not have the power to kill a measure — a move the group initially considered until receiving clarification that council committees can only delay or advance measures to the full council.)
Numerous council members took aim at a number of components surrounding the agreement, including that they were largely excluded from the negotiation process when it first kicked off.
Typically at the table, according to the city’s chief negotiator Rob Nespor, are several union officials, advisers and a labor attorney representing the police union. On the city’s side are representatives of the mayor, the Budget Management Office, the Department of Safety, DPD, the Human Resources Department, the City Attorney’s Office and the City Council.
However, the negotiation process began without City Council representation, which Nespor was grilled about, including by President Stacie Gilmore.
“Why were the negotiations not stopped immediately to rectify the situation?” Gilmore pressed.
“At that juncture, it was very preliminary in nature,” Nespor told her. “There was actually nothing that was agreed to or anything close in final form. … The vast majority of the negotiations took place the following week.”
Denver’s charter deems it the “obligation of the bargaining agent to serve written notice of request for bargaining on” the mayor and the city council, “or their representatives.”
“It was an oversight, not an intentional one, which was rectified as soon as it was made,” Nespor said.
Other issues for some council members, and for all 10 residents who spoke against the contract during the public hearing, was the length of the term, which they said should be reduced to one year, and the guarantee of a salary hike in 2022 in the wake of an economic crisis.
“I have a great deal of respect for a great many hard-working police officers in our police department. And they deserve to be paid well the same way as our hard-working and talented career service employees deserve to be paid well,” committee Chairman Paul Kashmann said. “But I have a heck of a problem assuring a raise when we have no assurance of similar raises and other elements of our workforce.”
“This contract guarantees an almost 3% salary increase that no other city employee will have, sending the message that the police officers are the most important part of city fabric, which is nothing the people have agreed to or voted on,” Denver resident Frana Burtness-Adams told council members. “Overall, this disagreement unfairly disadvantages all other essential city employees who are not allowed to collectively bargain for raises or lost pay due to mandatory furloughs.”
Others, including Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, attacked the lack of transparency and public process around negotiations.
“Where in the charter does it say these negotiations are confidential?” asked CdeBaca. "We’re a public agency, not a corporation or some organization with secret sauce.”
Elisabeth Epps, founder of the Colorado Freedom Fund, echoed her point during the public hearing.
“By public, we mean truly public to the community, so not just folks like me with law degrees should be able to figure out how to follow this,” she said. “If every other committee meeting is recorded and live-streamed and announced and archived, then so should every bargaining meeting.”
Kirsten Crawford, the body’s legislative counsel, said although a public process is possible, “it’s been decided for some time that we’re going to get something better for our community if we keep that process confidential. But certainly, there’s room to have those discussions.”
At least five council members — CdeBaca, Gilmore, Kashmann, Robin Kniech and Amanda Sandoval — currently stand as no votes heading into the decision later this month. The 13-member body will need a majority of seven votes to lock in the deal.