A council member who wants police officers to stop arresting people for having small amounts of marijuana found himself at odds with community organizers with the same priority but who hope to add other misdemeanors to a proposed policy.
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) filed a council consideration request Wednesday for city staff to draft a cite-and-release program related to marijuana possession. In his request, Pelaez wrote that the program should “reduce overall arrests” and “reduce intentional and unintentional racial disparities in policing and arrests,” among other things. Texas law classifies possession of four ounces or less of marijuana as misdemeanors, which police officers can issue tickets for instead of arresting someone.
“We have a responsibility to our taxpayers and the community’s conscience to adopt a policy that frees up police resources, reduces inequities, makes San Antonio safer for everyone, and creates opportunities for vulnerable people instead of obstacles that impede their success,” Pelaez wrote.
SA Stands, a coalition of community organizers that has also been advocating for a cite-and-release program, criticized Pelaez’s request. San Antonio deserves a “comprehensive” cite-and-release program that goes beyond marijuana possession, SA Stands member Ananda Tomas said. She also is the founder and executive director of ACT 4 SA (Accountability, Compassion and Transparency for San Antonio), which advocates for police reform.
“Councilman Pelaez made a calculated move to undercut years of work by the community — including his own constituents — on cite and release,” Tomas said in a statement.
Council members use council consideration requests as a way to propose policies or ordinances. Each request must be co-signed by at least four colleagues and often are considered first by the council’s Governance Committee, on which Pelaez sits.
For the past four years, SA Stands has been championing a cite-and-release program that includes all misdemeanors where people would be eligible for citations instead of getting arrested under state law, Tomas said. Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) had been consulting with city attorneys and other people on the best way to draft a separate council consideration request founded on SA Stands’ work as well.
On Monday, Tomas and other advocates met with Pelaez to seek his support, but he said he would only support a cite-and-release program for marijuana possession. The advocates and Pelaez parted ways after talking about providing community input opportunities on the program, which Pelaez said he still intends to do.
Tomas did not appreciate Pelaez’s action so soon after their meeting. She said that the fact that his request for a cite-and-release program came mere days after their meeting without a heads up felt like “a slap in the face.”
”We do feel that he may have put this out sooner than his office intended to in reaction to our conversation to have his [council request] go out first, as like, a more amenable one,” Tomas said. “But he must have been working on this before to not mention this to us.”
Pelaez maintained that he was inspired by his meeting with Tomas and other organizers to get a similar request drafted.
“There’s impatience on their side and it’s totally understandable impatience and frustration,” he said. “The wheels of the council grind slowly and I get that. I’m trying to be really sensitive to it. And my decision to file it now so soon after the conversation is also informed by that frustration. It’s clear they want to see something and so I woke up the next day and thought to myself, ‘Well, if they want to see something, let’s give them something. They have been waiting for four years, for goodness sake.’ ”
These requests also take a long time to move through the pipeline, Pelaez added. Even though he has filed a request, that doesn’t preclude outside input from molding and changing the eventual policy decision that comes from it.
“The [council consideration request] is the beginning of a conversation,” he said. “A lot of these problems are sussed out by city staff in the way they work through it, and then what informs our decisions are conversations that happen after the filing of the CCR. So there’s still a lot of details to be ironed out.”
McKee-Rodriguez said he was excited to see the process of codifying cite-and-release get started.
“I do appreciate Pelaez’s leadership and commitment to starting a conversation,” he said. “It seems like from his press release that he wants the community conversation. So I look forward to being part of that and bringing a lot of people along the way.”
The request still needs to get filtered through other council committees before any potential ordinance gets voted on by the full council, McKee-Rodriguez pointed out.
“We have the opportunity to make amendments. … Wherever it goes, there is an opportunity for council discussion and for changes to be made,” he said. “If we have to submit an expanded version later, I’m fully willing and capable of doing that.
Pelaez said his constituents would not have accepted the entirety of SA Stands’ proposed cite-and-release program, which seeks to include all Class C misdemeanors that include theft under $100 or graffiti.
“The Jewish Community Center and the synagogues in my district and in John Courage’s district, they don’t take graffiti lightly,” Pelaez said. “And graffiti is not a victimless crime and neither is property destruction. So I’ve picked marijuana because I think that’s a really, really good start.”
In 2018, a sign that read “Fake News” and “MAGA” was placed at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is on the same property as the Barshop Jewish Community Center. In 2015, two North Central San Antonio neighborhoods that are home to many Jewish families had cars, homes, and public property spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic words.
Courage, who was one of the four council members who signed onto Pelaez’s request, did not provide comment Friday.
Pelaez said he understood that his request did not include all the goals that SA Stands had, but he wanted to begin the conversation about having a cite-and-release on the city’s books. Right now, San Antonio Police Department officers have the discretion to give tickets for certain offenses rather than arrest people, but that’s not enough, he said. Tomas agreed.
“Right now, cite-and-release isn’t an ordinance; it’s like an administrative policy put forth by the district attorney’s office and SAPD,” she said. “So if we get a new district attorney in or a new police chief, this policy and practice can be done away with. It’s not permanent. And that’s why we want to make it an ordinance, so it stays permanent.”
Pelaez also emphasized that he wrote his request to align with his beliefs. While he welcomes additional community input and involvement, ultimately, he wanted to file his request because it felt right.
“I understand that [SA Stands] would have liked to see my [council request] include other offenses,” he said. “But I disagree with them. And I’m not beholden to a third party’s opinion as to what I should and shouldn’t file.”