This story has been updated.
Amid near-nightly confrontations between Black Lives Matter supporters and police officers since Saturday in San Antonio and many major cities, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) and activists have revived a yearslong discussion this week by calling for adjustments to police officer disciplinary procedures in the City’s labor agreement with the police union.
“We must ensure that the next police contract we adopt includes a clause monitoring disciplinary records and institutes a zero-tolerance policy for any officer displaying bias or prejudice of any kind,” Treviño said Tuesday in a Facebook post. “You have my word that unless this type of disciplinary monitoring is put in place, I will not be voting in favor of the upcoming police contract and I will implore my colleagues to do the same.”
Members of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Autonomous Brown Berets De San Antonio have added their voices to the discussion, though there has been no cohesive stance on the matter from the groups.
While officials have been quick to praise peaceful protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis last week, and to condemn violence, what tangible changes should or will be made locally to start addressing the problems are just starting to solidify.
“Together, we will be examining the city’s role in the criminal justice system and updates or reforms to ensure the equitable treatment of communities of color,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
City Attorney Andy Segovia said “right now is not the right time” to start outlining what the City will ask for in contract negotiations.
“There’s still time to work with the Council, work with the community on that,” Segovia said during the mayor’s nightly coronavirus update.
The police union isn’t afraid of discussing any aspects of its contract, said Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association. “But I have absolutely no interest in trying to negotiate something that is going to give me less of a benefit than what State law offers me.”
Local contracts follow Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code.
“We are required to abide by State law, so the reform that’s necessary to ensure that the department leadership has the ability to make sure that they have everyone following the rules really is being managed at the State level,” Nirenberg said later. “Clearly the community is raising their voices and wants reform and we’re listening.”
Helle condemned the actions of the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, causing his death on May 25, and the other officers who stood by while he died.
“To my knowledge we’ve never had an incident like that,” Helle said, and he questions whether changing rules surrounding punishment police disciplinary actions would have prevented it. “I don’t understand the conversation from politicians about trying to broad-stroke everything into their police department [which] has absolutely none of these issues that they feel like need to be brought into the conversation.”
Then-Councilmen Nirenberg (D8) and Rey Saldaña (D4) in September 2016 cast the only dissenting votes against the contract, which received praise for resolving the financial burden of previous contracts’ plush health care benefits. Protesters with the Black Lives Matter movement had raised issues with the contract late in the two-year negotiation process but showed up at Council meetings before the vote to advocate for the removal of measures that protect officers who break the law or violate department politics. Former Mayor Julián Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) also called for change.
Saldaña proposed removing a section of the contract that “automatically alters and limits the use of police discipline records” and provides an ineffective arbitration process. These rules make it harder for cops who have been removed from the force to be reinstated.
Helle confirmed Thursday that he will retire in January at the end of his fifth term, just as negotiations for the next contract are slated to start. He served as a detective for SAPD for 31 years and became president of the police union in 2008.
The current contract expires on Sept. 30, 2021.
“I stand here disappointed with the result of today’s vote,” Saldaña said at the time of the vote on the current contract. “The passing of an incomplete contract that lacks common-sense measures of accountability and transparency is a decision that we will have to live with for the next five years. … The voices of our community asked for this change but our leadership did not deliver. Five years from now, Council will not be able to plead ignorance on this issue.”
He was off by one year.
After a KSAT-TV investigation in January into officer misconduct and disciplinary procedure showcased officers alleged to have committed violations getting their jobs back, City Manager Erik Walsh said the current contract “limits the Chief’s ability to appropriately discipline officers that deserve to be disciplined. We intend to bring those issues to the next contract negotiation with the police union. I am hoping the police union will agree that these cases tarnish and impact the community’s confidence in our police department.”
After the contract was approved, then-Mayor Ivy Taylor formed a stakeholder committee to address the issues outside the environment of contract negotiations.
Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations met only a few times before some representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police union stopped showing up. The group met five times starting in September 2016 and then broke off into subcommittees. In April 2017, it issued a list of recommendations related to recruitment, training, communication, and community collaboration. There was no mention of changes to the disciplinary processes described in the union’s contract, and the recommendations received little attention at the time of its release.
“I don’t know of any documented case – and I’ve been here for 30 years – of racism or some kind of bias where a policeman has done something intentionally because of the color of [somebody’s] skin,” Helle said. “If in fact, we did have an officer behaving that way, without question anybody that works with him would have reported him to their supervisors.”
Bystanders are subject to prosecution, too, and police officers have “too much to lose” to be complicit by inaction or silence, he said. “That policeman is not going to go to jail for anybody else.”
But peaceful protests and controversy have followed the deaths of black San Antonians over the years, such as Marquise Jones, who was shot and killed by an SAPD officer in 2014, and Charles “Chop” Roundtree, who was unarmed when Officer Steve Casanova shot and killed him in 2018, and their deaths are still fresh in people’s minds. A vigil is planned for Jones and Roundtree on Sunday.
“We’re not going to solve racial injustice by looking at [the union’s] contract,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who is chair of the Public Safety Committee that Nirenberg reinstated this week.
She expects that the City and Council will review its own use-of-force policies and disciplinary processes.
“A contract doesn’t stop you from a behavior, it just gives you consequences [and processes],” Havrda said. “Contracts are meant to protect not only our community but also our officers. … They are San Antonians, too. A vast majority of officers want to see the community thriving.”
For now, the priority of police officers and the City of San Antonio seem in alignment on ensuring public safety amid peaceful protests, curfews, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Police Chief William McManus has commended police officers’ conduct over the past week.
“We didn’t have one single report or complaint of excessive force last night,” McManus said Sunday. “Considering the amount of police officers that were out there and the level of intensity from the demonstrators and the assaults that they were doing on police officers, that’s pretty remarkable and it shows a great deal of professionalism from the San Antonio Police Department.”