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Jonathan-David Jones, a Black Lives Matter organizer who in 2016 became part of an effort to reform the San Antonio police union contract, said if he could tell his younger self one thing, it would be to “be specific.”
Jones was in his early 20s, full of energy, and at the time, part of a group calling for a San Antonio response to the police violence against unarmed black men seen across the U.S. His activism took him from protests on the street to meetings with then-Mayor Ivy Taylor and top police officials.
“[Taylor] asked me, ‘What policy recommendations do you have?'” Jones recalled of one of the meetings. “And I remember, I felt stumped. I felt like I hadn’t done enough research on what I wanted it to look like.”
Jones, who now lives in Houston, experienced firsthand what a new, younger group of activists could soon face as they engage with the City. Issues of racial bias and policing in San Antonio have been brought to the foreground by the nationwide protest movement in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
The question is whether the energy generated in these protests will continue to coalesce around specific changes, such as cutting police funding or putting stronger disciplinary measures in the contract between the City and the police union. The contract expires September 2021, and negotiations are expected to begin in early 2021.
Fixing contracts won’t stop racism or cops from killing unarmed people of any race, but they – in concert with other local and state regulations – can be improved to hold bad cops accountable. Training programs can help the police force better respond, but racism can be found in housing, banking, education, and dozens of other systems that keep many black people poor.
“When I see in [the City’s budget] the term ‘protect and serve’ all I can think is ‘policing poverty,’” Hailey Bloomer, a Black Lives Matter protester told City Council on Thursday as she advocated to defund the police department.
“A lot of this money needs to go back to communities [to address] their current and generational traumas,” Bloomer said.
After then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley hired Police Chief William McManus in 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based nonprofit, was brought in to provide recommendations on how the department could improve. McManus changed SAPD’s policies regarding chasing down nonviolent suspects and for when it’s appropriate to shoot at a vehicle to reduce the risk of life to the community and officers.
This focus on community-based policing earned the department recognition from President Barack Obama, and in 2014 the department participated in the Advancing 21st Century Policing Project. Implementing these and other changes has received pushback from the union, which has called for McManus’ resignation.
That work is improving police accountability and its relationship to the community, McManus said Saturday.
“There’s a lot of things in the [police union] contract that in my opinion do not allow for the proper administration of discipline and corrective action [for police officers] and that’s a problem,” he said.
Some of those issues are mandated by the State. Others stem from the local police union contract.
Indications of bias
Mike Helle, a San Antonio police detective who has led the police union as its president since 2008 and recently announced plans to step down from the union post, does not believe race has any bearing on an officer’s decision to pull the trigger.
“If, for whatever reason [someone is] pointing a gun at you … [race] is not even a criteria in the officer’s mind,” Helle told the Rivard Report in a phone interview Thursday.
Helle went on to say that unconscious or implicit bias – the concept that people often subliminally attribute qualities to a member of a certain social group – is “a bunch of nonsense” and that whoever came up with the term is “probably a millionaire.” People who have not stood in an officer’s shoes do not appreciate the split-second decision an officer faces when his or her life is on the line, he said.
“Until it happens to you, you’re never going to understand,” Helle said.
However, statistics on police shootings in San Antonio indicate that these split-second decisions end up taking the life of black people more often than other races, and other racially charged confrontations occur where police do not face an armed individual.
From 2013 to 2019, the San Antonio police killed 47 people, according to FBI crime statistics compiled by Mapping Police Violence. Eight were black, nine were white, and 25 were Hispanic or Latino. Adjusting for the population size of each demographic, that means blacks were killed at 3.8 times the rate of whites, with Latinos killed at 1.2 times the rate of whites.
While San Antonio’s police shootings of unarmed black men have not been as high-profile as many other U.S. cities and communities, three fatal incidents reverberate in the recent past: Marquise Jones in 2014, Antroine Scott in 2016, and Charles “Chop” Roundtree in 2018.
The entire SAPD department was given mandatory implicit bias training in 2016, and that training has since been embedded in cadet courses and periodic training sessions with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, an SAPD spokesman said.
Demographic data shows a lack of black leaders among the department’s upper echelons. As of November 2018, the highest-ranking black SAPD officer was a captain, according to the latest statistics available on the department’s website.
Demographic data show that whites are over-represented and blacks are under-represented among the San Antonio Police Department, compared to the city as a whole. San Antonio is 64 percent Hispanic or Latino, 25 percent white, 7 percent black, and 3 percent Asian, with the remainder made up of other racial groups, according to 2010 census results.
As of June 5, of the 2,388 sworn officers on the force, 55 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 38 percent are white, 5 percent are black, and 1 percent are Asian, with other races making up the remaining 1 percent.
For decades, police officers have protected one another from unfair criticisms and firings, Helle said.
On one hand, unity and camaraderie are critical in a police officer’s line of work – they depend on each other to protect themselves and the community. On the other, the same unity and camaraderie have lead to police officers failing to report or intervene in situations like Floyd’s in Minnesota. This concept is often referred to as the “Blue Curtain” or “Blue Wall.” Some critics of the police call it the “Cone of Violence.”
McManus and Helle agree on one thing: Good cops are becoming less willing to stick up for the bad cops.
“That blue wall has gotten very, very low over the years,” McManus said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen anymore, but it happens a whole lot less than it used to.”
What activists like Jones wanted in 2016 was more formal language in the contract to make it harder for officers with a history of misconduct to stay on the force.
Echoes of 2016
Compared to Minneapolis and cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., protests in San Antonio largely have been peaceful, with one night of vandalism and looting downtown May 30 that followed a peaceful protest and march that drew 5,000 people.
After a confrontation outside the Alamo on Tuesday that ended with police firing less-lethal projectiles, police and protesters seemed to have pulled back from aggressive confrontations. Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the media he did not support police use of tear gas and rubber bullets under those circumstances.
The following night, Deputy Chief Gus Guzman and two other uniformed officer stood fully surrounded by a crowd of activists in the middle of Travis Park. For about 10 minutes, Guzman spoke to them through a megaphone borrowed from protesters.
“The police department in San Antonio supports you being here today,” Guzman said, while noting that he needed to “deliver the message” about a 9 p.m. curfew. Most of those gathered that night began leaving the park around that time.
The scenes have mirrored those of four years ago. Then-City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) was one of those who predicted at the time that the issue of police accountability would resurface.
“While our well-deserving officers will be properly compensated and receive health care benefits, our city has lost an opportunity to further strengthen our police department and improve police-community relations,” Saldaña said in 2016. “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,” Saldaña continued.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, eager to break a negotiating impasse with the union and win a new contract, showed no interest in supporting Saldaña.
“What we didn’t have back then, I think, is energy of activism action and attention to force the hand and the political will of the Council to act on it,” Saldaña told the Rivard Report on Friday.
The City’s initial contract proposal in 2014 included several elements of disciplinary reform, but the issue was overshadowed during negotiation sessions by Council’s priority to reduce the enormous financial burden of rapidly rising health care costs.
After more than two years of contentious talks picking apart health care and wage benefits, it wasn’t until after a deal was struck that Saldaña and others started questioning why it made no progress on reform. The deal wasn’t made public until June 2016. Council voted on Sept. 1, 2016.
“I remember being surprised that none of the recommendations that the chief had asked for on police discipline and accountability were included,” Saldaña said. “I would have imagined we had got at least some concession.”
After a long battle, Taylor and most of Council showed little interest in continued negotiations, especially after union members overwhelmingly approved the contract. Saldaña and Nirenberg, then representing District 8, were the only Council members to vote against the contract. Nirenberg was also unsatisfied with the contract’s long-term financial costs.
Current council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Shirley Gonzales (D5) voted to approve the contract in 2016.
“Some of them defaulted by saying we’re just tired of dealing with this and we want to pass something,” Saldaña recalled. “It was kind of a slap in the face. Every excuse was thrown at me,” including that it was too late, that it’s too politicized, and it should be up to the state to change the rules.
There are plenty of elements that the contract layers over State law that could be removed and State law can be changed, too, he said.
“This is an action that I think gets at the root at what it means to do systems change work,” Saldaña said. “It is hard, and they will fight you, and it is long-term in terms of its impact because the changing of a police culture is done piece by piece.”
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Why is it hard to fire bad cops?
When an administrative complaint is filed against an officer – by a member of the public or by a fellow SAPD employee – it is investigated by the department’s Internal Affairs Unit.
According to State law, the chief of police has six months to punish police officers. For a criminal offense, that starts the day the chief is made aware of it. But for civil matters, such as violating conduct policy, that starts the day the act occurred. State law also allows disciplined and indicted officers to receive back pay if they win an appeal of the chief’s decision to fire or suspend them.
Language in the contract – which is subject to approval by City Council – allows officers to have 48 hours and access to all evidence before they are formally questioned by Internal Affairs, which critics say gives the accused time and opportunity to undermine the charges.
After 180 days, short suspensions are reduced to simple reprimands on an officer’s permanent record.
Officers, with the support of the union, almost always appeal any punishments, which puts the matter in the hands of an arbitrator agreed on by the union and the City. Neither the chief nor the arbitrators are allowed to view records more than two years old.
A KSAT-TV investigation broadcast in January found that 67.5 percent of fired officers were reinstated through this process.
“How is that a negative?” Helle asked, noting that a civilian found not guilty on an appeal is not imprisoned. The system protects the wrongfully accused, he said. “If a case against an officer gets thrown out … does that mean he no longer gets his job anymore?”
SAPD’s Integrity Detail handles only criminal complaints against officers. Those detectives are instructed to follow the same legal processes they would when investigating non-police suspects.
If the City cannot prove its case that a police officer should be fired or follow the procedural rules, then that’s on them, Helle said. “I’m not going to dumb down or reduce a benefit our members have because [the City] is incompetent and I need to level the playing field. … For your incompetence, I gotta lower the bar? Absolutely not.”
Nationwide, 24 percent percent of officers in 55 major cities got reinstated through similar arbitration processes between 2006 and 2016, according to a Washington Post investigation. Some cities, however, did not provide data for that entire time period.
“You can’t tell me that … these cases aren’t properly investigated in every police department across the country. That’s just not true. It’s simply not true,” McManus said.
Officer Tim Garcia, who explained to a suspect that he was being arrested because he “f—– up n—–,” got his badge back last year after a lengthy arbitration.
”If someone gets fired, it’s not an arbitrary decision and it’s not something we take lightly,” McManus said. “The last thing I want to do is fire somebody, but if they need to be fired, I don’t want that overruled by [an arbitrator] who has no clue about the police department, the culture of the community. … That should not be their call.”
And remember, arbitrators can use only two years of the officer’s record to make a decision. To determine discipline, the chief can look back 10 years for drug and alcohol-related issues, five years for acts of intentional violence, and two years for all other infractions.
The Complaint and Administrative Review Board, also called the Chief’s Advisory Action Board in the union contract, combines two other boards comprising citizens appointed by the city manager and police officers from across the ranks. This board makes recommendations to the chief.
But the system is weighted in the favor of bad cops because the chief cannot use the officer’s complete personnel record to determine punishment, former City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the Rivard Report.
“These [disciplinary] changes were proposed in 2014,” Sculley said. “But because the union fought us on changing health care for years … by 2016, everybody was tired of the issue and said: just settle it. We got as much as we can.”
Click here to download a summary of changes the City proposed throughout the negotiations, which started in 2014. This document was prepared by the City’s Human Resources Department in 2016.
The new health care terms saved the city more than $100 million over the last five years, she said. “And the world didn’t stop turning on its axis [like the union implied it would].”
When Sculley was recruited to San Antonio in 2005, she wasn’t hired only to fix the union contract. The organization as a whole needed an overhaul.
“Thank goodness I was able to recruit [McManus] to San Antonio. He has done an excellent job” but is limited by the rules of the contract and the State, she said.
Helle, who will retire in January next year just as negotiations are slated to start, said it’s unclear if the protests will impact the negotiations.
“It depends upon the politics of what’s going on,” Helle said. “If we’re going to have a contract dictated by politics and not reasonable facts then I don’t really see us going anywhere.”
‘Don’t be fooled by good rhetoric’
Unlike four years ago, activists seem intent this time on going after police budgets. Some elected leaders are showing signs they are receptive.
At City Council on Thursday, some Council members seemed interested in swimming with the rising tide of grassroots momentum. Many protesters aren’t thrilled that more than 36 percent of the City’s general fund goes toward policing, especially with the coronavirus pandemic shorting the City’s budget by an expected $200 million in 2020.
The City spends 64.2 percent of its discretionary funds on public safety, including firefighters and emergency medical responders.
After budget adjustments and some cost savings, the City will spend nearly $475 million on police during fiscal year 2020. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for everything else,” Nirenberg said.
Last week, Nirenberg revived the Council’s Public Safety Committee, to be chaired by Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6). Regular Council committee meetings had been paused because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Emotions ran high at the Council meeting Thursday when Havrda tried to regain control from shouting protesters who are tired of waiting for police reforms. She promised them their voices will be heard and quoted from anti-authoritarian ’90s rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine: “It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime. What better place than here. What better time than now.”
But Havrda, who wasn’t the only Council member heckled that day, pointed out how rare it is for San Antonio residents to approach City Council members and ask for less funding for the police, not more.
“On a normal day, I don’t hear from you guys,” Havrda told protesters Thursday. “Continue to engage with us.”
Saldaña, who served on Council for the maximum eight years representing District 4 and now lives in Washington, D.C., to lead Communities in Schools, knows how intentions can fizzle out over time. He offered advice to those advocating for change.
“Don’t be fooled by good rhetoric right now – don’t be fooled by ‘we agree with all these and we’re going to pass a [symbolic] resolution,'” he said.
Saldaña said unless officials agree to something that carries legal force, such as a collective bargaining agreement, anything the City agrees to “might as well just be a set of 10 great ideas that sit in a binder somewhere.”
“If you want change, you need to be very specific,“ Saldaña said. “There is a bet being made in rooms with powerful people that you will not remember this come January. They are betting that once NBA and NFL and TV and movies come back, that is going to distract you from the energy you have right now. … You need to call their bluff.”