San Antonio City Council’s Governance Committee will move forward with a plan to create a new system within the city organization that would work to prevent crime and recidivism.

In the coming months, the Public Safety Committee will further explore strategies, which could include coordination with Bexar County, to achieve the goals laid out in a January proposal by Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2).

His initial proposal was to establish an Office of Crime and Recidivism, but McKee-Rodriguez said Tuesday after the Governance Committee meeting that it doesn’t have to be a formal office or department as long as the end result is a multidisciplinary, data-informed and public health approach to effective crime prevention.

“Part of that would be working with city departments to research and manage grant opportunities related to crime prevention and collaborate to develop innovative strategies such as crime prevention through environmental and societal design,” said McKee-Rodriguez, who was elected in 2021 on a platform that included police reform and crime reduction.

“The office is the intention … that’s what we envisioned to be the solution. It could be new positions within other departments that all work together.”

City staff did not recommend the formation of an office on Tuesday and instead outlined the various city initiatives — which include hiring someone to coordinate programs related to crime and recidivism, the health department’s five year plan and developing a violent crime reduction plan — that will, when put in place, “address the priorities outlined in” McKee-Rodriguez’s proposal.

While the councilman said he appreciates the existing initiatives, he also expressed that they don’t go far enough — or beyond violent crime prevention — to address the root causes of crime, which are tied to economics, education, housing and other social issues.

“Violent crime is not the only crime keeping my constituents up at night,” McKee-Rodriguez told the committee. They also worry about property crimes, drug abuse, traffic violations and more.

City Council approved his 2023 budget request for a liaison between departments to work on crime and recidivism, but that person — slated to be hired in early 2023 — will need more support to be effective and push policy recommendations, he said. “If we truly want to reduce the burden on our officers, our community, we need a more well-rounded, thorough [and] strategic approach.”

City Manager Erik Walsh cautioned against over-centralizing the responsibility of crime reduction, saying it should be spread across the city organization.

“Much of what we do as a city is designed in part to systematically reduce crime or make people safer, whether it’s sidewalks or streets or arts programs, it is all loosely tied,” Walsh said.

The first 10 months of 2022 saw a nearly 12% increase in crime in San Antonio compared to the same time frame last year, with a rise in homicides leading the way.

The city has to prioritize, Walsh added. “There are a lot of crimes that happen in the city. The priority is violent crime first. … Our primary responsibility is enforcement. It’s not recidivism.”

But Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who chairs the Governance Committee, pushed back.

“Crime prevention and recidivism is not the sole responsibility of the police department; it’s not the sole responsibility of any department,” Nirenberg said. “Frankly, it’s shared responsibility across the board of the organization.”

That will likely mean stronger coordination with Bexar County, he said, which includes the courts, jail, the sheriff and district attorney offices.

Nirenberg agreed that the city should avoid creating another bureaucratic silo — whether that’s an office or a task force.

“I think we all have the same vision, we all want to see the same outcomes,” Nirenberg said. “It’s just how do we get there most efficiently and … most effectively.”

Similar initiatives for crime prevention have been established in several cities, including Philadelphia and Baltimore.

McKee-Rodriguez said he expects city staff to present an overview what other cities are doing to the Public Safety Committee, of which he is a member.

“We see it modeled in other cities and so that’s where the idea came from,” he said. “If it’s going to look different in San Antonio, that’s fine.”

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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