This article has been updated.

With an 8-3 vote, City Council approved a five-year contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association on Thursday, finalizing a deal that strengthens the chief’s authority in disciplinary procedures against cops accused of misconduct.

Council members Mario Bravo (D1), Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) and Teri Castillo (D5) voted against the contract, largely echoing concerns by police reform activists regarding the lack of independent civilian oversight of the department and other elements of police discipline.

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) accused those who voted no of attempting to “defund the police.”

Her comment elicited outbursts from the police reform activists in council chambers and rebuke from colleagues.

Recent state law “does not allow municipalities in the state of Texas to defund or divest or lower the investment in their police departments,” Castillo said. “So I encourage my colleague to read.”

An independent oversight board with investigative powers that could prevent officers from using vacation time to pay themselves during suspension or change the length of the contract or evergreen term wouldn’t “defund” the police, McKee-Rodriguez said.

“That’s not what this is about,” he said. “This is about accountability. This is about calls to action that our community have asked for.”

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) responds to his colleague, Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran, during City Council on Thursday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bravo also chimed in. “I think we need to really be careful in our nation right now about promoting false narratives and divisive rhetoric,” he said. “And there was absolutely nothing that we discussed today that faintly represented ‘defund the police.'”

McKee-Rodriguez and ACT 4 SA organizers argued that the city’s existing Complaint and Administrative Review Board (CARB), comprised of seven civilians and seven uniformed officers, should be restructured to become independent of the contract and the police department.

Currently, the review board has no ability to run independent audits or investigations, said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, citing a 2020 study by The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University that found San Antonio’s CARB doesn’t have enough teeth. “We deserve a seat at the table when it comes to the policing of our community.“

Tomas said the city failed to even try to negotiate such changes, which Mayor Ron Nirenberg confirmed.

“The CARB was not part of our negotiating priorities,” he said.

The city’s main goal for this contract was to prevent an arbitrator from so easily overriding the chief’s personnel decisions, City Manager Erik Walsh said: “That was the point of attack that we zeroed in on.”

Union President Danny Diaz said the arbitration changes are welcome.

“There’s not a member of the San Antonio Police Officers Association that wants bad cops here,” he said.

San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz, left, addresses the media as Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, First Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio, and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus look on following the confirmed police contract. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The city achieved most of its stated goals related to the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct while keeping public safety spending, which includes the fire department, below 66% of the city’s general fund, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, who led the city’s negotiation team.

The contract includes 15% in base pay increases for officers over five years and a 2% bonus payment to be paid within 30 days. The increase would make local police officers among the highest-paid in the state, second to Austin, city officials have said.

A deep dive into the contract’s details can be found here.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to approve the contract on April 26.

At the time, Diaz credited both the union and the city negotiating teams’ hard work, professionalism and focus “on delivering a fair contract to police officers that protects their pay and benefits and recognizes the uniquely challenging job of law enforcement.”

A key element in the contract grants the chief the authority to decide what misconduct is detrimental to the department — making it harder for fired cops to get their jobs back. Under the narrower jurisdiction of a third-party arbitrator who reviews officer appeals, the city can better challenge their rulings in municipal court, city officials have said. Under the previous system, an arbitrator had more leeway to overturn the chief’s decisions for any reason.

An evergreen clause keeps most of the terms of the new contract active for eight years after it expires or until a new deal is reached. During that time, however, base pay raises for union members stop and they continue to pay increased health insurance premiums each year.

There were no changes made to health care benefits; members and their dependents — if on a premium-driven plan — will continue to pay 10% more in premiums each year, even during evergreen periods.

Tomas said she believes the new contract will reignite efforts to strip the police union of its ability to collectively bargain.

In May 2021, San Antonio voters narrowly rejected a proposition that would have repealed the union’s bargaining rights.

“Whether that’s work at the state legislative level or a ballot initiative, we’re going to push for every measure we can to get the changes we need,” said Tomas.

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

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