Last week, and every week since 1994, officers assigned to the San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) unit deployed across the city to connect and engage with residents.

Unlike traditional patrol officers, these 112 men and women are focused on quality of life issues, creating relationships with residents, resolving community conflicts, and coordinating programs to engage at-risk youths, such as the Police Athletic League.

“If patrol is the backbone [of SAPD], then SAFFE is the heart,” said Officer Joel Zulaica, a member of the Central Substation SAFFE team. “We get to take our time on calls to resolve those neighbor-to-neighbor issues.”

The city’s 2022 proposed budget would add 12 officers to the SAFFE team if approved by City Council next month. This addition is just one of a number of changes to the police department, and how the city funds public safety, after a comprehensive review of police services performed over the past year. The review was part of the city’s response to calls for police reform in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.

The changes represent what city officials say is a shift to a more holistic approach to law enforcement and crime prevention that strongly intertwines the police and health departments. But some advocates for police reform fear the effort is too bureaucratic and will take too long to realize results.

Community policing

Zulaica and fellow SAFFE Officer Yarnell Rickett spent a recent afternoon providing backup as Animal Care Services officers executed a search warrant in the Loma Vista neighborhood. The officers talked with neighbors who said the home had a number of dead chickens in the yard and dogs that got loose.

It’s the SAFFE team’s job to follow up with these neighbors and others like them, Zulaica said. Doing so can “potentially prevent more serious [911] calls.”

But that’s not all SAFFE officers do. Last week, Eastside SAFFE officers hosted a community meeting for residents about ways to keep themselves and their community safe. Recently, Northside SAFFE officers assisted the Department of Human Services in cleaning up a homeless encampment.

Resident surveys and dozens of community meetings show a clear desire for increased visibility of police officers, SAPD Chief William McManus said. Nearly 57% of residents who responded to the city’s police services survey said police visibility should be “greatly increased” or “increased.” The SAFFE unit provides that visibility, he said. “It’s not necessarily to reduce crime, it’s to make a better connection, a wider connection with the community groups.”

Community groups with a close connection to their police department feel safer, he continued: “It’s a fact.”

San Antonio police officer Tina Cortez, left, speaks to community members during a neighborhood watch class on Wednesday.
San Antonio SAAFE officer Tina Cortez, left, speaks to community members during a neighborhood watch class on Wednesday on the East Side. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

A public health approach to policing

As a result of the police services review, the city is proposing a number of additional changes to how police — and other departments and experts — handle 911 calls related to mental health, noise complaints, fireworks, and found property.

While those are relatively easy to enact, the city is also looking deeper into how programs that increase community education, affordable housing, and economic mobility contribute to a reduction in crime.

The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s Violence Prevention Division will lead the effort to analyze the impact various city programs — such as workforce development, affordable housing incentives, and prekindergarten have on crime, said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez.

The goal is to reduce crime by addressing the underlying social and economic conditions, such as childhood trauma, poverty, and a lack of access to education and health care, that foster criminal behavior.

“What can we do upstream to prevent [crime] to begin with?” Villagómez said. “Of course it’s not going to be solved overnight — that’s going to take years — but I think it’s so important as a local government to … start evaluating our programs in that fashion.”

Police administration is fully onboard, McManus said, and believes Metro Health is the right partner agency to do this kind of deeper analysis. “We are not, or should not be, the primary agency that people rely on to prevent these [crimes] from happening.”

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) expressed little patience for exploring crime’s underlying conditions after a recent budget briefing.

“The year is 2021 and we’re just now about to start researching the root cause of crime in San Antonio,” McKee-Rodriguez said later. “If we don’t already know the root causes of crime in our city, we cannot confidently say that the programs our city is doing will prevent crime. That means that we are putting officers on the ground to address crime that we aren’t making appropriate efforts to prevent.”

While the underlying causes of crime are indeed well-known, this “data-informed” partnership between the police and health department is part of the new, holistic approach to measuring city programs and their potential impact on crime reduction, Villagómez said.

Claude Jacob, who started as Metro Health’s director in July, said his department is well-prepared for the task. He said the department is currently in “design mode,” trying to figure out what data is needed to measure how a program that, say, increases affordable housing might have an impact on crime rates.

Jacob acknowledged that while it will be difficult to show causality, it’s critical that city and police leaders understand “the constellation of conditions that impact communities.”

Claude Jacob, director of the Metropolitan Health District
Claude Jacob, director of the Metropolitan Health District Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Also baked into the proposed budget is Metro Health’s five-year strategic growth plan, which Jacob said augments and strengthens the department, while clarifying the roles among Metro Health, police and fire, and other departments.

If all this sounds familiar, well, it is

The idea that crime is not the sole responsibility of police departments or courts is far from new, and approaching criminal behavior from a public health perspective has gained ground in recent years.

A report from the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, a think tank on crime prevention, suggests looking for factors that increase the risks of crime, similar to the way public health officials work to reduce heart disease in a community. The center suggests “looking at patterns of economic and social problems in a neighborhood or community, as well as patterns of crime, disorder, and victimization, makes it easier to see how and where to intervene.”

But some community advocates worry this data analysis and contextualization will take too long.

“Maybe [collecting local data] will help change some hearts and minds, but we’re just going to find the same data that’s been out there,” said Ananda Tomas, who recently founded the police reform group Accountability, Compassion and Transparency for San Antonio (ACT 4 SA). Tomas is also deputy director for Fix SAPD, which is focused on police union contract reform.

“I know it’s part of the bureaucracy and how things work … but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” she said. “We have the data there. We have a lot of programs and models that we can work off of to implement programs and change now, instead of two, three years down the road.”

Tomas said the city’s proposed new multidisciplinary approach to mental health calls that would deploy licensed clinicians and emergency medical technicians with law enforcement is “a big stride in the right direction” but doesn’t believe most mental health calls require police officers.

As for the budget proposal that would add 12 officers to the force, Tomas appreciates that they will be SAFFE officers rather than traditional patrol, but “there are a lot of folks that don’t fully understand that more policing does not mean less crime.”

Ananda Tomas, founder of ACT 4 SA and deputy director with Fix SAPD Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Generally, City Council members were amenable to the proposed increases and changes to SAPD’s budget, but McKee-Rodriguez said he was concerned about adding more officers, as historically the number of police officers — SAFFE or not — hasn’t necessarily been proven to reduce crime or mitigate the underlying causes of crime.

Through the survey and 27 community meetings, residents indicated that SAPD could improve its relationship with the community through community policing programs such as the SAFFE unit, Villagómez said.

“Our SAFFE officers help to build that better relationship,” she said, “that trust between the police department and the community.”

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