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The City of San Antonio will host at least 20 more community meetings this spring to gauge residents’ interest in changing the way it handles certain 911 calls.

The police services review process was first initiated last year amid calls to “defund the police,” but the review is not specifically aimed at taking money away from the police department, City Manager Erik Walsh told reporters on Tuesday.

“This is not a plan to defund the police,” Walsh said.

Any possible impacts to the police department’s budget won’t be clear until the plan is finalized with input from the community and police officers, he said.

A full schedule of community meetings and recordings from previous discussions related to the review is available here.

Calls for police reform have been made in cities throughout the country, many of them building on the momentum gathered during a summer of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last year. 

“This is a plan to align our foundational issues, get input from the community, make sure that we’re lined up with their expectations, and [be] thoughtful” about the kinds of situations in which another type of responder could be safely substituted for a police officer, Walsh said.

The community input gathered at these meetings, three of which have already happened, will add another layer to data collected through a scientific survey of residents performed in February. The results are available online here.

More than half of the residents surveyed thought the police department should share the responsibility or serve in a “backup” role in responding to more than a dozen types of 911 calls. The top six types were: well-being or mental health checks that don’t involve a weapon, graffiti, parking violations, public health order enforcement, animal-related issues, and fireworks.

The City plans to tackle at least two types of calls this year. It’s possible that such calls could be handled by another City department – such as Human Services, Code Enforcement, or the Metropolitan Health District – or an outside agency, Walsh said.

“We do have to recognize that there are probably property owners who get graffitied who are going to say, ‘No, I want the police. I don’t want the code officer,'” he said. “So I think we need to be thoughtful.”

The survey doesn’t provide much context for what residents mean when they say they want “more visibility” of police officers, said Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager. “One of the respondents [at a community meeting] said, ‘I want to know my neighborhood police officer as well as I know my mailman.’ You don’t get that kind of nuanced understanding from a survey.”

Bridger will also lead separate stakeholder meetings to focus on how incidents involving domestic violence, mental illness, and homelessness should be handled. These meetings will attempt to answer a key question, Bridger said. “If we were to completely redo how we respond to these three big problems, how would we do it? Let’s start with a blank slate, and let’s try to figure out what’s the best way to respond to these really gnarly problems.”

San Antonio Police Officers enforce a 6 p.m. mandatory lockdown of Alamo Plaza in late May following the death of George Floyd. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Police officers will have a chance to provide input on possible changes once they start to form, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez. “We want to get their input as experts out on the street.”

Eventually, possible budget and policy recommendations would go before City Council for approval. That is expected to take place in June, when the budget process for fiscal year 2022 will start.

Originally the plan was slated to be completed this month, but organizers later doubled the amount of community engagement meetings, Walsh said.

He does not expect the process to result in fewer police officers.

The survey, conducted by ETC Institute, found that more than 70% of residents were satisfied with SAPD’s work, and nearly 80% felt safe or very safe in their neighborhoods during the day. However, fewer than half of District 3 and 4 residents, which includes the South and Southwest sides of the city, said they felt safe in their neighborhoods at night.

More than 56% of residents said they wanted to see more police in their neighborhoods.

The type of work that police officers do or the types of calls they respond to on a daily basis, however, could change, Villagómez said. “Perhaps the workload of some of the calls that could be handled by another department would allow us to increase the visibility and interaction with the community.”

A majority of these changes could be achieved by administrative or Council action, outside of the police union’s labor contract with the City. The current contract expires in September and negotiations for a new contract are underwayThe prospect that voters could repeal the state law that allows San Antonio and the police union to negotiate labor contracts also looms over the process.

Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to punish cities that “defund police.” There are several bills filed in the Texas House that target defunding police. House Bill 1900 would withhold a portion of tax revenue, put a freeze on public utility rates, and create a path for annexed communities to leave the municipality if a city cuts police spending.

In 2020, the City of Austin cut its police department’s budget by $20 million and shifted an additional $130 million away from police to other departments.

Last year, the City of San Antonio moved staff members and about $1.3 million from the police department to Metro Health and cut police overtime by $3.5 million.

Overall funding for police increased by more than $7 million to about $486 million to cover a contract-mandated 5% pay increase for officers.

“The bills up in Austin are designed to remove municipal authority over a core function,” Walsh said. “Whether it would be issuing building permits, or police, or EMS services, we’re always going to want to … retain that control.”

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