At the request of the Fraternal Order of Police and with no public notice, Wichita has reopened its contract with the police union ahead of schedule, City Manager Robert Layton confirmed.
The move, aimed at addressing recruitment and retention issues in the Wichita Police Department, is a break from standard practices at City Hall.
"This is exceptional. We have not done that in the 14 years I've been here," Layton told The Eagle, calling it a "narrow reopening" of the contract with a focus on staffing. It comes 15 months before the existing FOP contract is set to expire and two months before a majority of seats on the City Council will be decided.
"If we weren't in a position where we were concerned about the number of officers that we have on staff, or the number of vacancies, we wouldn't have reopened," Layton said.
He wouldn't say what specific contract provisions are up for discussion beyond "retention strategies and recruitment strategies," indicating the city could spend more on the police force a month after approving a 2024 operating budget that increases WPD funding to $122.5 million or 41% of general fund expenses.
The city is also using the opportunity to push for the implementation of an unspecified number of changes to the FOP contract recommended by Jensen Hughes in a blistering cultural analysis of the police department published in March.
"We just thought it was a good time for a few of these Jensen Hughes recommendations to be on the table for discussion, but I think we have to recognize that most of the Jensen Hughes recommendations that pertain to negotiations or the contract itself — most of those will be in next year's discussion for the new contract," Layton said.
In an emailed response to The Eagle, FOP President David Inkelaar said the union does not support Jensen Hughes' recommendation to eliminate a contract provision that allows officers who have been accused of excessive force or other wrongdoing to review all evidence against them, including transcripts of full witness interviews, before they present their own narrative during an internal investigation.
The 30-day window for renegotiating the existing contract expires on Oct. 4 but Layton said it could be extended if talks prove constructive.
"The idea was to keep pressure on both sides to have serious discussions and not drag this out," Layton said.
The City Council has increased police funding by about $30 million over the last three years, which includes money for 708 commissioned officers. But the department has had difficulties achieving that number.
A police spokesperson told The Eagle over the summer that the department had 608 commissioned officers, with two groups of recruits going through the academy that could add about 30 officers by the end of the year.
"I'm looking for the ability to attract new officers to our department," Chief Joseph Sullivan said when asked about his priorities for reopening the contract. "I want to compensate the officers that we have for the work that they're doing out there shorthanded each and every day.
"We also want to ensure a way to incentivize those officers that are eligible to retire to hang in there with us a couple more years while we get the department back up to strength."
According to the WPD spokesperson, 26 officers retired in 2022 and another 22 had retired by mid-July 2023. The department provided no context for how many retirements it expects to have in a normal year.
Wichita mayoral front-runner Lily Wu, who has made concerns about police staffing a core theme of her campaign, told The Eagle earlier this month that she supported reopening the FOP contract early.
"We really should be addressing this recruitment and retention problem, and part of recruitment and retention is pay," Wu said on Sept. 1, four days before the city agreed to reopen the contract at the FOP's request. "So, really, we can't wait until months from now when we really need to address it at this current moment."
Incumbent Mayor Brandon Whipple said he learned from Layton that the existing contract had been reopened for negotiation.
"We'll of course work with the union to make sure that they get a good contract moving forward, but also, we can't let that supersede the goals of creating the most professional, effective, community-focused police department in Kansas," Whipple said.
Both Whipple and Wu said they support the Jensen Hughes recommendation of eliminating the Code of Conduct Standard Differential Pay, a contract provision that went into effect in 2022 and rewards officers who haven't been caught breaking rules other city employees are also expected to follow with an extra $2 an hour if they have worked with the department for at least three years.
"If every sergeant, detective and officer is eligible, the cost of these payments to the taxpayer is $2.7 million (each year),"the Jensen Hughes report stated. "This is a large sum of pay for expected behavior."
Both mayoral candidates said they support giving that money to officers outright and eliminating the stipulation of more pay for following city rules.
"I'm not sure why that was put in, so I can't talk to the history," said Whipple, who was mayor in December 2021 when the City Council unanimously adopted the last FOP contract despite activists' concerns that it protected bad cops by continuing to conceal the names of officers accused of wrongdoing.
"When it comes to the code of conduct part, to get money just for basically following the policy — they should get that pay because they're good officers, right? Because they're doing the job," Whipple said.
Wu said "officers should already be doing what they're supposed to do" and the extra $2 an hour, which is set to rise to $2.25 an hour in 2024, should be rolled into police salaries.
Sullivan would not say which Jensen Hughes recommendations he supports approving ahead of next year's full-contract renegotiation.
" Jensen Hughes is always going to be a priority. It's a priority of mine and it's a priority of city officials," Sullivan said. "But again, right now it's just too early in the process to say what exactly we're going to address and when."
Jensen Hughes was hired by the city to conduct an operational assessment of the culture of the Wichita Police Department in the aftermath of a mishandled internal investigation into text messages that were racist, sexist, homophobic and casual about violence against civilians. The messages were shared by members of the SWAT team, including Wichita police officers and firefighters and Sedgwick County deputies.
Nineteen of the 54 Jensen Hughes recommendations are listed as "implemented" in the dashboard maintained on the city website.
Another 22 proposed reforms are marked "in progress" and 13 are "under review," including those that relate to the FOP contract.
"I'm going to say that we are progressing at an acceptable pace, recognizing that several of the issues that are outstanding are significant recommendations and are going to take some time to implement," Layton said.
Sheila Officer, chair of Wichita's Racial Profiling Advisory Board, sees it differently.
"I think it just needs to be said that there's very little progress being done with regard to the Jensen Hughes report," Officer said in an interview earlier this month.
"What does 'in-progress' mean? What have you actually done? We need a word-by-word ledger on what's been done? What are you waiting to do? What's the progress?"
Other than the recommendation to eliminate code of conduct pay, Jensen Hughes has two ideas for reforming the police union contract. One recommendation calls for the establishment of specific misconduct violations that will trigger removal from specialty assignments and the other suggests getting rid of the provision that allows officers and their lawyers to review the entire investigative file before sitting for an interview with the Professional Standards Bureau.
The cultural assessment notes that the access to evidence allows officers accused of wrongdoing to "construct a story that may discredit or nullify any of the evidence."
Whipple said he supports getting rid of the special privilege to review the investigative file before being interviewed for an internal investigation.
" Jensen Hughes commented that this is incredibly counterproductive to the process, but also, from the conversations that I've had with the chief and the conversations that he's had with other chiefs, that provision is almost unheard of," Whipple said.
Wu was unwilling to commit to taking a position on the proposed contract change.
"I know that the Jensen Hughes report kept talking about that that's definitely not a best practice, and I want to know a little bit more regarding that," Wu said.
Inkelaar, the FOP president, said he is unaware of any instance in which an officer's ability to review the evidence against them has interfered with a criminal or internal investigation.
"The Jensen Hughes report suggested, without citing any evidence of such occurrences, that the opportunity to review the file would allow an officer to tailor his or her responses to questions," Inkelaar wrote in an email.
"The FOP finds it insulting that there would be a presumption that officers who enter an interview with a strict duty to provide truthful responses will use this exercise of their due process rights as an opportunity to provide false testimony. In fact, the first piece of advice the FOP gives an officer being interviewed is to tell the truth."
Officer, the chair of Wichita's Racial Profiling Advisory Board, said the group has urged the city in the past to get rid of the provision, which she says presents a privacy risk to people trying to report excessive force violations and other wrongdoing.
"An officer who has a complaint filed against him has access to any and all information from the complainant — their address, their telephone number, their family information — all of that," Officer said.
Citizens Review Board
During 2021 contract negotiations, the city declined to adopt a transparency recommendation by the Citizens Review Board, which was established to recommend policy and increase oversight and trust in the police department.
That proposal would have required the city to disclose officer grievances and arbitration proceedings.
State law allows cities to release those records but the city's contract with the FOP ensures the proceedings — which decide whether or not an officer is disciplined — remain secret. That secrecy keeps the public from knowing when the chief of police and city manager are in agreement or at odds with disciplinary action or when discipline is overturned.
"It also protects officers by providing visibility to any claims that police management is acting in an unfair or arbitrary way in applying discipline measures," a statement by the CRB sent to Layton and the City Council in 2021 says.
"It was intended to be a transparency recommendation to the community," former CRB chair Jay Fowler said. "It wasn't necessarily to help us do our job more effectively. We thought there was a benefit."
Fowler, a lawyer who is still on the CRB, said the board would still like to see the change now or in 2025. But the city has not asked the CRB to weigh in on its current negotiations.
"The short answer is I knew there were going to be some discussions with the FOP, but the CRB has not been consulted on this current round of discussions," Fowler said. "That has not been an agenda item, and we have not had a report on it or anything of that nature."
City spokesperson Megan Lovely said there is no timeline yet for when regularly scheduled 2024 FOP contract negotiations will take place.
Contributing: Chance Swaim and Michael Stavola of The Eagle
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