The negotiating teams for the city of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association met for another collective bargaining session on Thursday, a process that began in February and has now tallied at least 12 face-to-face meetings.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick has been there for most of the sessions, just as she covered contract talks that stretched from 2014 to 2016. Here is her recap, published Friday.

The primary issue this go-around is addressing police disciplinary procedures in the union contract that keep bad cops on the force. And that primary issue remains at or near an impasse as the two sides continue to negotiate on the margins.

There is a distinct lack of urgency that worries me. The summer of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement is now a distant memory for most white citizens who have less to fear from the police. Meanwhile, union officials have been less than responsive after voters in May narrowly rejected a ballot initiative by Fix SAPD to strip the union of its collective bargaining power.

The organization’s young activists worked the issue hard, but they were political novices, unable in the end to counter the union’s deep pockets and its disinformation campaign that the ballot initiative was meant to “defund the police.” They received scant support from the business community, which regularly funds city candidates and initiatives. Yet with nothing more than faith in their convictions and solid grassroots work, the Fix SAPD volunteers nearly achieved their goal.

The issue then and now is simple: San Antonio has some bad cops on its force, thanks to a police contract and union culture that makes it very difficult to fire them.

If the collective bargaining talks, now in their sixth month, were marriage counseling, the two sides might claim some progress while affirming their commitment to the process. A skeptical therapist, however, might question the value of repeated meetings when both sides keep skirting the real issue, always putting off the hard conversation to the next session.

Less than three months remain before the current contract with the police union expires. I’m skeptical that an agreement will be reached in that time frame unless city officials give ground they should not give. Citizens deserve to see city officials stand firm. Union representatives, if they are following the book authored by their lead hired negotiator, Georgetown attorney Ron DeLord, will hold fast, betting that city negotiators grow impatient and settle for less.

It’s happened before, notably after Mayor Ivy Taylor undercut efforts by City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her negotiating team. One look at the photograph by Photo Editor Scott Ball of then-SAPOA President Mike Helle tells you who prevailed in 2016.

Here is the bottom line, as true today as it was the day the two sides sat down in February: Bad cops in San Antonio continue to be protected by union officials who use the appeals process guaranteed in the contract to thwart the police chief’s disciplinary decisions. Third-party arbitrators have the power, and use it, to reverse or moderate the chief’s decisions. Individuals who have no business wearing a badge and carrying a gun remain on the force and a menace to citizens.

First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio speaks during collective bargaining negotiations between the City and police union on Thursday.
First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio speaks during collective bargaining negotiations between the city and police union on Thursday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

That reality was proven yet again last week. Meet SAPD Officer Devi Rios, a poster boy for bad cops still on active duty despite a long record of violence, bad judgment, and breaking the law in off-duty incidents. After recently causing a two-vehicle collision and then fleeing the scene, Rios was followed by the other driver, who caught up to him when Rios’ reckless driving led to him crashing into an access road curb.

The other driver, Ara Halibian, 61, said he only wanted Rios’ name and insurance carrier. Instead, he was given a severe beating by the off-duty cop, who was then arrested at the scene by fellow SAPD officers who reported that he smelled of alcohol.

Surprise.

It was not the first time fellow SAPD officers have arrested Rios. You and I would be fired from our jobs if we engaged in the same kind of life-endangering, reckless, and illegal behavior again and again. Not Rios. At least not yet.

Kudos to reporter Dillon Collier and KSAT-TV for their strong reporting on Rios, his latest arrest, and his deplorable history of troublemaking as a member of the force. Read this KSAT.com article first, followed by this one.

Rios is a violent, angry actor with a gun and a badge. Check out his personnel file: A pattern of road rage behind the wheel, driving while intoxicated, leaving the scene of a collision, assaulting another driver, being shot six times in a shootout in a strip club parking lot in which the other individual was shot eight times by Rios.

How much is enough for police union officials to decide on their own to stop defending the indefensible?

I suspect union-supported appeals prevented Rios’ firing in 2017 and 2018 and instead led to a suspension and reassignment from his position as an instructor at the police academy. Yes, this raging bully was teaching others how to police. His continued presence on the force reflects Chief William McManus’ inability to outright fire bad cops like Rios after the incidents recounted by Collier in his reporting.

No wonder so many people, not only people of color, fear encounters with the police. The era of protecting bad cops needs to be brought to a definitive end. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Erik Walsh and their negotiating team need to present a solid shield wall against the union.

And, please, Chief McManus, fire Officer Rios. Media attention should handcuff the see-no-evil arbitrator this time.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.