This story has been updated.

San Antonio and statewide activists will launch a citywide petition campaign on Tuesday that, if enough signatures are collected, will give voters in May 2023 the opportunity to decriminalize marijuana and abortion, ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds as well as expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

The proposed charter amendment is “focused on reducing unnecessary arrests and fighting mass incarceration, saving scarce public safety resources as well as pushing police accountability to build a safer San Antonio for all,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, a local police reform group.

The group will formally launch its petition drive Tuesday at 11 a.m., on the steps of San Antonio City Hall.

The proposed changes, if the petition is successful, will appear as a single ballot initiative alongside mayoral and city council races on the May 2023 ballot.

ACT 4 SA will work with Ground Game Texas, a group that pushes for progressive legislation in communities across the state, and other organizations to collect the required 20,000 verified signatures of registered San Antonio voters to get the “Justice Charter,” as Tomas calls it.

Changes to the city charter can only be attempted every two years. It requires the petition to be signed by a number of qualified voters equal to at least 5% of the number of qualified voters of the municipality (about 60,000) or 20,000 — whichever number is smaller.

The group aims to collect 35,000 signatures — anticipating that some won’t be verified — to submit to the City Clerk before the early January deadline.

The group said it has done polling, performed by the Democratic political research group YouGov Blue, showing support for each measure ranging from 51% favorability for a ban on police use of neck restraints to 64% for a ban on no-knock raids.The proposal overall polled at 67% approval.

“These are all things that, for whatever reason, the city government hasn’t accomplished even though there’s public demand for them,” said Mike Siegel, political director and co-founder of Ground Game Texas. “That’s the beauty of this direct democracy tactic — the initiative tactic — where we can take something that’s popular with the people and the people can legislate directly.”

Conversations around the initiative started late last year as local activists grew frustrated with the slow-moving wheels of reform at city hall about expanding and codifying the cite-and-release policy.

“If we know that this is something that the community wants, that has been beneficial to the community, but we’re having a problem at the legislative level,” Tomas said, “why don’t we just take this to the community for a vote?”

The proposed charter change would turn that existing policy — which law enforcement and the district attorney voluntarily follow, with discretion — into law and expand which non-violent, low-level offender would receive a citation rather than arrest.

The existing cite and release policy saved Bexar County $4.7 million in jail booking costs in its first year, officials have said.

While City Council recently passed a resolution that “de-prioritizes” investigations into abortion crimes, the proposed charter change would prevent them entirely, except in cases where “coercion or force is used against a pregnant person” or “in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Right now, enforcement of that resolution is “entirely dependent on the police chief and potentially rank-and-file police officers following through on this policy,” Seigel said. “We think de-prioritization is way too squishy. It doesn’t actually guarantee the level of safety that the community wants.”

The proposed charter change would also end enforcement of low-level marijuana possession, except in a few limited situations. This language is similar to Austin’s marijuana decriminalization, which was approved by 85% of that city’s voters earlier this year. The proposed San Antonio amendment adds that police can’t use the “odor of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for any search or seizure.”

The initiative in Austin, also organized by Ground Game Texas, included a ban on no-knock warrants — when search and arrest warrants are executed without police officers announcing their presence. An investigation by The New York Times found that 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers were killed in no-knock and quick-knock raids between 2010 and 2016.

In San Antonio, no-knock search and arrest warrants and chokeholds are already banned by department policy — with exemptions.

The proposed charter changes would legally ban them and provide rules surrounding “quick-knock” warrants — a kind of loophole to the no-knock ban that allows very little notification time, Siegel said. “What this policy does is lay out, essentially, how search warrants should be executed.”

“No police officers may gain forcible entry into a premises, absent circumstances
in which there is verified, imminent threat to human life,” the proposal reads. “A knock and announcement shall be provided in a manner reasonably expected to be heard observed and understood by occupants of the premises to be searched based on the size and nature of the location.”

The proposed charter amendment includes measures that have been implemented in cities across Texas and the U.S., said Seigel, a civil rights lawyer who previously served as an assistant city attorney for the City of Austin. “These are both popular and enforceable. … We know this is doable. We know the police are able to administer policies like this in a way that doesn’t negatively impact public safety.”

The sixth charter change would require the city to appoint a “justice director” to oversee the implementation of these changes.

That director would also monitor “future city legislation related to criminal justice, policing, all of that,” Tomas said. “An impact report needs to be made to make sure that we are staying on track as a city.”

In a statement released Tuesday, San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz said the proposed charter amendments would “hinder the progress being made” to ensure that “effective policing is in place.”

Chokeholds and no-knock warrants are already prohibited, he said, while enforcement policies regarding marijuana and abortion are determined at the state level. He said the current cite and release policy saves money, but at the expense of public safety.

“Dangerous criminals and repeat offenders are being allowed back on the streets in record times,” he said.

In 2018, voters approved changes that capped the tenure and compensation for future San Antonio city managers and changed rules regarding arbitration for the firefighters union labor contract. In 2021, voters approved a change that allowed bond money to be spent on affordable housing.

That same year, voters narrowly rejected a measure that would have changed the police union’s contract bargaining rights. That proposition was not a charter amendment, but an attempt to repeal local law. Tomas helped lead the campaign that collected signatures and lobbied for votes, Fix SAPD, which required 19,337 signatures and fundraised about $930,000.

“I don’t foresee [the Justice Charter] getting close to the million-dollar mark,” Tomas said.

These changes are straightforward demands for the community, she said. “This isn’t just us implementing our thoughts and opinions, this is from what we’ve heard from community and where they’re at.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org