On the same day residents asked the Bexar County Commissioners Court to reduce law enforcement spending and take a hard look at the upcoming collective bargaining agreement with the sheriff deputies union, commissioners approved on Tuesday an additional $2.79 million in overtime pay for deputies.

Sheriff Javier Salazar requested 68,700 hours of paid overtime for detention deputies working in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center between June 1 and Aug. 14. Commissioners already approved 124,300 hours of paid overtime for officers before Tuesday.

There are 193 deputy vacancies at the Bexar County jail. Existing deputies must work mandatory overtime to cover that gap. The sheriff’s office is continuing its recruiting and hiring efforts, but those have been stymied by a variety of factors, Salazar said.

“In spite of our best efforts [to bring] down the jail population the right way by about 900 people, COVID restrictions, COVID requirements, the governor’s order, and of course the failure of several outside agencies to come and pick up their inmates in our jail is driving our jail population back up,” Salazar said. “And quite frankly, that’s what’s driving our need for continued [mandatory overtime] up. We had just about seen [the need for mandatory overtime] disappear for about a week or two, and then due to having to implement social distancing within even the jail setting, it’s requiring us to have more deputies in the house.”

Before commissioners approved the overtime for the sheriff’s office, 11 people signed up to comment on the office’s law enforcement role. Some urged budget cuts for the sheriff’s department. Others urged commissioners to take public input during the negotiation process for the new sheriff deputies union contract. Most shared their personal experience as black Bexar County residents. Roosevelt Bradley said when he was 15, his mother sent him to work as a carpenter at the Magik Theatre instead of playing basketball and football like other kids because of the broken relationship between police officers and black and brown communities.

“And I love the opportunity I got to work there at the theater,” he said. “I learned a lot about woodworking, flooring, building walls. But what I lost was the end of my childhood, because my mother was afraid that no matter what I was doing, positive or negative, there was a force that we could not control, and the force that we cannot understand. And instead of communicating, we had to run away.”

Bradley advocated for the end of broken-window policies, demilitarizing law enforcement, and promoting communication and letting people “live their lives freely.”

“Just like each and every one of you in this room would like to go home today, feel safe, protect your family, and earn a little money, I, too, and everyone that looks like me would like to go home, feel safe, protect their families, and earn a little bit of money,” Bradley said.

Melvin Lampkins shared the story of his son, Pierre Abernathy, who died in 2011 while in custody of the San Antonio Police Department. He hesitates when he hears the phrase “defund the police,” Lampkins said. But he believes the community can “reimagine” the police.

“Instead of sending the police officers on some of the nonviolent or non-threatening calls, maybe we can coordinate with some of the social services or mental health agencies to dispatch those types of professionals to the scene to de-escalate a … situation that may escalate into violence,” Lampkins said, holding a framed picture of his son and grandson, Abernathy’s child.

Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said as budget season starts, commissioners ought to heed the speakers’ comments.

“These folks come not just from my precinct,” he said. “People who came here today are from all over the county. They vote in every single precinct. And every single one of these issues are issues in each of our precincts, not just mine. There is new youth, new energy, new brain trusts that I am so honored and proud to see at work. It makes me feel like I am not alone. Thank you for the work you’re doing in the streets, and now it’s time to turn the protests into budget commitments and into action.” 

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also thanked the speakers for their time but said despite said the court’s intentions to implement new policies such as issuing personal recognizance bonds to keep people out of jail, state policy limits the county’s ability to do so. Abbott issued an executive order in March barring inmates with previously accused or convicted of violent crimes from being released from jail without paying bond. That order affected about 400 inmates in the county jail, Bexar County Judicial Services Director Mike Lozito told commissioners.

“We’ve reduced our jail population by 900, and we’ve had no spike in crime,” Wolff said. “So it proves it can work, and we just need to change a lot of people’s minds about how we do that.”

Earlier in 2020, the sheriff’s office was able to shed nearly 900 inmates from the jail’s total population count, but the number has risen back up in recent weeks, partially due to a backlog of people who are ready to be transferred to the state correctional system but have not been picked up yet.

“The State of Texas kind of created the perfect storm for us,” Lozito said Tuesday. “The Texas Department of Criminal Justice closes its doors, so these are individuals – about 100 a week – that we would normally transport over there. We currently have around 300 inmates in there [ready for transfer to the state system].”

Halting jury trials and in-person appearances also slowed the pipeline of inmates preparing to leave the county jail, Lozito said.

Wolff also acknowledged Tuesday that contract negotiations with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County (DSABC) would begin soon, and called upon the sheriff’s office on how many people have been dismissed for “valid reasons” and who returned to work after contract-mandated arbitration put them back in their positions.

“They come right back onto the force again, and he’s forced to take them and put them back to work,” Wolff said. “And that just [sends] a terrible signal to anybody else that’s working for the sheriff’s department that they can come back even if they do things wrong. So I think that’s really important that we address that in this contract.”

In the past, negotiating the sheriff deputies’ union contract has taken up to a year, County Manager David Smith said, which would allow enough time to take public input on the contract. What that stakeholder process looks like, however, is yet to be determined.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.