BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Buffalo Police Department is operating on an expired contract with its Police Benevolent Association, the union for police officers.
The parties have not been able to agree on a new contract for nearly a year.
The existing agreement expired in June of 2019.
A law called the Triborough Amendment states all terms and conditions under a previous agreement must be abided by until a new one is signed.
Pay raises are frozen, and unions are not supposed to strike during this time.
A COMPLICATED AGREEMENT
"We've come very close, we've come very close to having a contract," said union president John Evans. He represents the more than 700 police officers in the City of Buffalo.
For two weeks, 7 Eyewitness News attempted to get a copy of the current contract from both the City of Buffalo and the Police Benevolent Association. Tuesday afternoon, the Union was the first to release the agreement to media.
It is a nearly 400-page document that dates back to 1986.
There are decades of memorandums of understanding and arbitration settlements that complicate a surface-level understanding of the rights awarded to each party under the agreement.
It also complicates movement towards police reform, according to Buffalo Police Deputy Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia.
"Going back to 1986, we operated with 14 precincts and a whole different style and philosophy of policing that isn't even remotely close to what policing is today," he said. "I would even argue some of those practices are why we are where we are today."
Much of the current operating procedure for the police department came out of arbitration — a process, some argue, gave the Union a great deal of power when it comes to oversight of policing in Buffalo.
"I think it's a perceived power," said Evans. "I don't know how much power it really is because we do go to arbitrations. We lose arbitrations. We don't win every arbitration. The arbitrator is a neutral third party."
Gramaglia contests the neutrality of the arbitration process.
"Arbitrators come in, and they hear both sides of the case. The biggest issue with the arbitration process — as I see it — is that arbitrators are picked on both sides. As opposed to spun on a wheel, and appointed."
THE TRAINING BARGAIN
The sticking point for the current contract negotiations is training.
Additional training for police has become a common refrain from community groups demanding police reform.
The labor contract prevents Commissioner Byron Lockwood from scheduling more training for officers.
The contract has set shifts: days, evenings, or overnights.
"In our contract proposal to The City, there is a training component that permits them — it's very flexible — to train our officers without paying overtime," Evans said. He added the current agreement already has a provision for training.
"The way the schedule is set up, we have what's called an "overlap day" — a training day. It happens twice a month. Twenty hours a month, there are components where each wheel, each side, has the ability to train. The city chooses not to hold training sessions on those days."
Buffalo Police Deputy Commissioner Joe Gramaglia confirms this "overlap" day does exist but says it is not as black-and-white as that.
"We do [have overlap days for training], but those are also the subject of many grievances that have been filed on the Union's part. Changing schedules, changing shifts — not all training is a one-day training."
Evans told 7 Eyewitness News reporter Madison Carter he is in favor of more training.
"The training component, absolutely, that's been something that's been absent for the 19 years I've been on the job and long before that. There's always room for improvement. The only way you're going to get that though, realistically, is through real hand's on training."
Evans did not put forth suggestions to 7 Eyewitness News on how to have more training without the Union allowing more flexible scheduling adjustments.
What Evans did say is that he does not want training to disrupt the personal lives of his members by taking them away from their families or other engagements for long periods.
Some courses take multiple days to complete or require travel to different states for weeks at a time.
"Our officers aren't bankers. They work all different days," countered Gramaglia. "They work on a rotating schedule, and their schedules quite frequently don't line up with multiple-day training."
Gramaglia added there is an intense desire within the police force for additional training that doesn't necessarily align with their negotiated shifts.
"There are members of this department who go to training on their own time, on their own dime because they want to get that type of training," he said. "Some have done that under the warnings they could face union charges if they go to training that's sponsored by the department, but is not done through the department with the overtime."
Overtime is another issue on both sides — the police department must operate within a budget while the Union requires officers to receive overtime pay for any time worked outside of an assigned shift.
"The MoU's have to get in line with some of these things," said Gramaglia. "We're beholden to collective bargaining, and we're beholden to MoU's, but we're also beholden to a budget. So the free reign of training and 'everything should be done on overtime' is not practical."
FINDING COMMON GROUND
One thing both sides agree on is changes need to be made to policing in the City of Buffalo.
"We certainly believe that policing must evolve — stagnant waters get poisoned," said Gramaglia.
"This is a new era in policing when you discuss reform. Especially when it has come on this strong, this fast, this hard."
Governor Andrew Cuomo is requiring a complete reform of all departments in New York State by April 1, 2021 in order to apply for state funding.
Union President John Evans said he is on board with reform, as long as it is done according to parameters set by the decades-old contract.
"We are definitely not the obstructionists that we're being made out to be," said Evans. "We understand there's a need for transparency, no question."
To see a complete overhaul of established policies dating back to '86, Gramaglia said it would take building from a clean slate with the PBA.
"It would be monumental. I think in theory that would be great, it would take probably starting from scratch and eliminating everything but there are a lot of benefits the Union has gained over the years they have to be willing to let go of."
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Evans told 7 Eyewitness News, right now, the new 2020 contract is sitting at the desk of legal counsel for the City of Buffalo.
He said the Union is waiting for a response to their counter-offer.
Meanwhile, Mayor Byron Brown has blasted the PBA multiple times over the last week, saying they've failed to come to the table and help push along reform for the police department.
Here's @MayorByronBrown this afternoon saying that in all the meetings that have been had over the last two weeks, no union representative has even SPOKEN to the City (nor community) or sat down at the table to discuss reform. pic.twitter.com/9JNQwRQrtJ— Madison Carter (@madisonlcarter) June 12, 2020
Evans expressed confusion regarding why the Union is taking so much heat from the City right now.
He insisted the Mayor has been "extremely fair" to the PBA for more than a decade but feels the incident with 75-year-old Martin Gugino two weeks ago is playing into the current state of affairs between the two parties.
"He's been the Mayor for 15 years, and now all of a sudden the PBA contract is going to be your focal point? I think he’s trying to create a diversion. 'Hey, we have to find a scapegoat here, let’s blame the union.'"
After our interview, President Evans sent a letter to the membership where he said, "Irreparable harm was done to the relationship between our body and this Administration."
Brown has been meeting for weeks with community groups demanding police reform in the City of Buffalo.
He announced a slate of measures last week.
His announcement was followed by a response from Free the People WNY.
The group was pleased Brown met a series of demands but said it will not be satisfied until all have been met, including "Demand 10: give the community a seat at the bargaining table".
In response to this demand, "Mayor Brown has stated that the community will have the opportunity to weigh in publicly on our priorities regarding police union contracts before they are decided, which is a step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the mayor to ensure that the people of Buffalo have the final say over if and how our communities are policed, not the PBA."
Evans scoffed at the idea of a third party's inclusion in negotiations.
"If he did say that, we would file a PERB [Public Employment Relations Board complaint], because that's against bargaining rules in New York State," said Evans. "You don't negotiate in the media. There's two parties that negotiate. That would be bargaining in bad faith."
He also said he doesn't think the Union should even be at the table with community groups.
"I don't understand where it would come into play. They don't sign our checks. We don't negotiate with them. Do they want us to have less sick days? More vacation?"
Kartika Carr, a spokesperson for the Coalition, responded to the confusion by saying, "We didn’t mean a literal seat at the bargaining table itself. We envisioned having community forums and listening sessions on things needed to be changed, as they’re being directly impacted."
The Mayor's office released the following statement to 7 Eyewitness News:
The Union declared an impasse some time ago, and the City has been participating in the mediation process required by PERB in accordance with the law.
"That's correct," said Evans, responding to the statement. "That's what we're in now. We declared an impasse in that our negotiations went south."
Gramaglia could not speak on the status of where negotiations stand. He said he has not been at the negotiating table.
"It's my understanding the PBA executive board is at the table with their representation, and then it's corporation counsel for the City of Buffalo."
As of Wednesday, the contract is in mediation, which is non-binding.
A call with the City's legal counsel and PBA executive leadership is set for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the next steps.