This story has been updated.
Residents in up to 28 “hot spots” of violent crime throughout San Antonio may have already noticed an increased police presence over the last month as part of the city’s new Violent Crime Reduction Plan developed by the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The hot-spot policing initiative is the first part of the three-pronged strategy to prevent and reduce violent crime — including homicides, assaults and robberies. Once the problem areas are identified, the city will use its various departments and community partners to address the underlying conditions in the area that contribute to that crime. If needed in that specific area, the plan calls for “focused deterrence” efforts to either rehabilitate repeat offenders or prosecute them.
“As much as we’d like to think that we are a data-driven organization, this is a new launch into that effort for us in the police department,” City Manager Erik Walsh said during a City Council briefing, “more so than we’ve ever done before.”
Most City Council members were receptive to the plan, although Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) raised concerns about how it would address the underlying causes of crime, while Councilwoman Terri Castillo (D5) worried about “hyper-concentrating police in lower-income communities of color.”
In total, the three-year plan and its implementation will cost the city nearly $3.7 million: $110,000 for UTSA to develop the plan and the rest will fund the hiring of 38 police officers to support the implementation of the plan.
Officers from SAPD’s patrol, neighborhood safety and street crime units rotate visiting hot spots during peak crime times throughout the week, as determined by data analysis for each spot, Police Chief William McManus said.
“Whatever the data indicates, is the course that we will follow,” McManus said.
These officers are directed to just sit in their vehicles with the lights activated and they are not supposed to engage unless there’s an emergency or violent crime taking place, he said. “They sit in their cars for visibility and that’s it … there’s no proactive work going on there.”
That’s one of the key differences from SCORPION, a high-crime, hot-spot policing unit in Memphis that has several members accused of beating Tyre Nichols before he died in a hospital three days later. The attack on Nichols was seen on video released to the public last week by Memphis police.
“This plan is deliberately built and designed not to be heavy-handed,” said one of the plan’s authors, Michael Smith, a UTSA criminology and criminal justice professor and director of the university’s Center for Applied Community and Policy Research in the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy. “There’s nothing in the San Antonio crime plan that resembles, in any way, any of the things that you saw — we’ve all seen — in that horrific video of the SCORPION unit.”
The local hot spot initiative takes a “light foot” approach to increase visibility, Smith said.
“The strategies that are in the San Antonio Violent Crime Reduction Plan are all based on many years, 25 years or more, of research evidence on what we know works best to control violent crime in urban areas,” he said.
Unlike the now-deactivated SCORPION unit, San Antonio’s hot-spot initiative will come with an analysis to determine what environmental or societal factors are playing into spikes of violent crime.
After a similar plan was adopted by Dallas, which UTSA also developed, one particular hot spot was located at an apartment complex, Smith said.
“There was a multidisciplinary effort involving code enforcement and parks and recreation and family services and a variety of other things that were brought to bear on this one apartment complex to try to help move the needle,” he said. “It was our number one prime grid when we started the plan, and we treated it for four periods before it finally dropped off.”
Dallas saw a decrease in violent crime since it adopted its plan in May 2021, down more than 5% since 2021 and 12% from 2020, according to city data.
UTSA and SAPD will review the local data and add and subtract hot spots as needed every 60 to 90 days, McManus said, and the initiative will be supervised by an assistant chief and two captains.
It’s unlikely that the department will share where the hotspots will be ahead of time, he said. “We don’t … necessarily want people to avoid those [areas]. If they’re going to do something, we want them to do it where they usually do it. Because we’ll be there.”
SAPD launched a pilot initiative in January 2022 as a kind of pilot program ahead of the reduction plan. Those hot spots were about seven blocks in diameter or 500 meters, but under UTSA’s formal plan, hot spots will be reduced to about 100 square meters.
Neither Smith nor McManus believe the initiative will lead to crime displacement — meaning the crime won’t simply move to another area.
“The literature doesn’t suggest that it will,” Smith said, but they will monitor areas outside the hot spots to check for displacement.
McKee-Rodriguez said the city wasn’t doing enough to address the underlying causes of crime: “poverty and access to resources and opportunity,” while Castillo focused on the potential “human collateral” of the hot spot program.
“There are lots of gaps within this research,” she said, “so I’m not comfortable moving forward with it.”
UTSA is also working with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District on a study that reviews how public programs — such as libraries and parks — impact public safety.
That work, which is still underway, will help the city determine where to best invest, Walsh said. “What I envision is a bit of a roadmap that helps us evaluate … where can we spend our resources?”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he hopes future councils will continue to invest in holistic public safety measures.
“If anybody is looking to see a great reversal on a generational issue [such as poverty or crime] within the next five years, you’re gonna be disappointed,” Nirenberg said. “Hopefully, we have enough commitment to this issue over the long term, that as we begin to turn the aircraft carrier now, people who fill our seats in the years to come [are] committed to that purpose.”
Residents can attend one of three public meetings to ask questions and learn more about the plan. Each meeting runs from 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
- Monday, Feb. 13 at San Antonio Food Bank, 5200 Old Highway 90 W.
- Thursday, Feb. 16 at Second Baptist Church, 3310 E. Commerce St.
- Monday, Feb. 20 at McCreless Library, 1023 Ada St.