Kimiya Factory (center) signs a petition at a Fix SAPD coalition meeting on Sept. 6. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Most people have probably never read the San Antonio Police Department’s Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Give it a read: We would be a better, more equitable city if every member of the force lived up to the code and it was more than words.

Here are the first two sentences:

As a Law Enforcement Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to
safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against
oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect
the Constitutional rights of all persons to liberty, equality, and justice.

I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm
in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful
of the welfare of others.

Most members of the police department uphold the code and do so with pride, yet another unpublished code, a code of silence, also rules their behavior and allows bad cops to stay on the force. Good cops fear repercussions if they call out individuals who have no business carrying a gun or wearing a badge. Silence serves as their wall of protection.

That’s a tragic flaw in police culture. If every member of the force lived up to the noble aspirations stated in the code, Black and Hispanic people, among others, would not fear the very people sworn to protect them. But they do, and with good reason.

That is why peaceful protesters who belong to Fix SAPD and other affiliated groups in our city are gathering petition signatures in an unprecedented effort to dismantle San Antonio’s powerful police union via the ballot box. Their task is a daunting one, especially amid the pandemic. They will need to gather the verifiable signatures of nearly 100,000 city residents who are registered voters to place the measure on the May 2021 ballot.

At issue are repealing Chapters 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code. As Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick reported last week, the two chapters detail stipulations for hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers, as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower the police union. If repealed, uniformed police would be on an equal footing with their civilian colleagues on the City’s payroll.

To get a repeal of Chapter 174 on the ballot, 20,000 signatures (or 5 percent of the number of voters in the preceding general election, whichever number is lower) will be required. Five percent, for this election, is 19,337. This chapter, adopted in 1974, allows police and fire employees to collectively bargain.

There is a much higher threshold of signatures required for placing a repeal of Chapter 143 on the ballot: 10 percent of the number of votes in the most recent municipal election. San Antonio had 784,148 registered voters cast ballots in the May 2019 election, so 10 percent would be 78,415 signatures. This chapter, adopted in 1947, governs police hiring, promotions, discipline, and records. It also allows local contracts to supersede or supplant civil service laws outlined in Chapter 143. Not all Texas cities have adopted these rules; they can be repealed by a local vote.

In my conversations with various protest leaders it’s become clear to me that what organizers want most is department-wide reforms and accountability. The phrase “defund the police,” not being promoted by Fix SAPD, is most often shorthand in the streets for fundamental disciplinary reform and getting the police out of the business of serving as first responders in situations involving the homeless, the mentally ill, and others. That work should go first to individuals trained in delivery of social services and in de-escalating potentially violent confrontations. Armed police should be the call of last resort.

Such change will require a shift in funding priorities. One thing young organizers new to the municipal political process are learning is how little control elected officials have over public safety spending. The union’s collective bargaining agreement is rooted in 40 years of entitlements not extended to other City employees, and the union will not willingly give back.

That’s evident as City Council prepares to approve the fiscal year 2021 budget on Thursday. City Manager Erik Walsh and his team also have presented a number of assumptions about the next budget for 2022, which will be set this time next year.

One certainty is that the City’s 8,413 civilian workers will not get a raise in the new budget or, in all likelihood, in 2022. They face a two-year salary freeze. The City’s 2,418 police and 1,766 firefighters, on the other hand, enjoy contractually guaranteed pay increases. For the police union, whose contract expires on Sept. 30, 2021, that means a 5 percent raise next year.

City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who will complete eight years of service in June with term limits preventing her re-election, directed Walsh to ask San Antonio police union president Mike Helle to accept a reduced wage increase for police to help the City balance its budget, which would be a selfless act in solidarity with the sacrifice civilian workers are making.

That request, made twice at different August meetings, did not yield the outcome Viagran sought. That, of course, is no surprise.

Helle and fellow union officials have engaged in a long and bitter fight with the City in an effort to avoid having to share health care costs, to avoid losing “special pay” entitlements in the contract that inflate rank-and-file earnings, and to prevent tightening disciplinary procedures against union members who commit crimes, violate use-of-force policies, or commit other egregious acts on duty that represent clear violations of the above-mentioned code of ethical conduct.

In effect, city officials are being forced to balance the general fund budget on the backs of civilian workers because they are powerless to manage public safety costs from one budget year to the next.

That is simply unfair. It certainly is not equitable, but it is the reality in San Antonio. If you want change, sign the petition.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.