It took more than two long and contentious years for the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) to agree on a new five-year collective bargaining agreement the last time the two sides sat down at the negotiating table.
From early 2014 to later in 2016 the dynamic often seemed more like civil war than two sides sitting down to find common ground.
This time around, negotiators have ample reason to not repeat history and instead pursue a new agreement in advance of the May 1 City elections. That’s a short three-month window of time before voters will consider a ballot measure that could end the police union’s collective bargaining power.
This contract go-round will feature a new team of City officials, led by City Manager Erik Walsh and Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, and new police union leadership, led by newly elected SAPOA President John “Danny” Diaz. Officials hope the rancor directed at then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley by union President Mike Helle, who is retiring, is a thing of the past and that both sides will see a shared interest in reaching a timely agreement.
City officials have cited police disciplinary reform as their top priority in this round of contract negotiations, and while they launched a new survey last week, polls already establish they have the public in their corner, as they did in a 2014 survey when the primary issue was runaway health care costs. Union officials now have a choice: agree to reasonable reforms at the negotiating table or face the wrath of voters who support law enforcement yet oppose the union’s power to shield bad cops and help them keep their jobs.
The San Antonio Police Department has nearly 2,500 officers, the majority of whom will never face serious disciplinary measures because they honor their oath, uphold the law, and manage to do very challenging, sometimes dangerous work without infringing on the rights of citizens or committing unjustified acts of violence or repression.
My guess is there are fewer than 20 police officers Police Chief William McManus would fire from the force if he were free to do so. Do police union officials want to continue to defend this small number of cops who do not deserve to wear a badge or carry a firearm on the force?
The union has good reason to fear the recent petition drive by Fix SAPD, which submitted the necessary 20,000 signatures to the City Clerk’s office this month to place the matter on the May 1 ballot. Fix SAPD, like the majority of likely voters measured in a BexarFacts poll last year, wants to reform disciplinary processes enabling bad cops to avoid termination and remain on the force.
Right now, hired arbitrators, not the police chief or city manager, often have the last word on if and how a police officer who commits a serious violation of department policy is disciplined. San Antonio Report articles published last year detail incidents of rogue cops being fired by the police chief, only to win back their jobs via arbitration.
If enough signatures of registered voters are validated, negotiators for both the City and police union will have to watch from the sidelines as voters decide the matter. The deadline for a productive negotiation looms, with early voting starting April 19, less than three months from now.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg publicly threw his support behind Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. His commitment to deliver on the issue of police discipline reform, I wrote at the time, will pose a major challenge as he seeks a third consecutive term as mayor.
Should negotiators successfully address police discipline reform in advance of the election, which is probably a long shot, voters would be less likely to approve the Fix SAPD ballot initiative. For activists, that’s not all bad. Their cause has been hurt by the “defund the police” rhetoric adopted by many in the movement nationally. While that slogan is not embraced by Fix SAPD, it has unsettled many voters who otherwise would support their case.
So if Fix SAPD can win at the negotiating table what they risk losing at the ballot box, they will be able to declare victory, and deservedly so. They and City officials will have made San Antonio a safer city for citizens of color and other vulnerable, targeted communities.