A police officer perched high above the crowd during NIOSA 2015 at La Villita. Photo by Scott Ball.
A police officer watches the crowd from high above during NIOSA 2015 at La Villita. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg will be tested next year to keep his Thursday promise to protesters to change the way police treat people of color and are disciplined in San Antonio. No reasonable person can pretend African Americans and Latinos are treated with the same respect as white people in this city, and no city in the country sees more officers fired for misconduct returned to the force.

The problem is the police union. It’s official name is the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) and the collective bargaining agreement it has with the City protects bad cops. It’s almost impossible for San Antonio Police Chief William McManus to fire an officer without seeing arbitrators reverse his decision and hand out a lighter punishment.

The union contract allows fired officers and those facing lesser punishment to appeal to an arbitrator agreed upon by the union and the City. It’s a nice paying gig for the lawyers who get on the arbitration list. To keep the union from striking their names, arbitrators routinely hand down reduced sentences.

This is not opinion. It’s fact.

A 2017 Washington Post investigative series titled Fired/Rehired identified San Antonio as first among the 55 largest U.S. cities for reinstating officers, with 70 percent of all fired officers winning their jobs back. In each instance, arbitrators overruled McManus and handed down lighter punishments that kept the rogue officers on the force.

“To overturn a police chief’s decision, except in cases of fact errors, is a disservice to the good order of the department,” McManus told a Washington Post reporter. “It also undermines a chief’s authority and ignores the chief’s understanding of what serves the best interest of the community and the department.”

The Washington Post highlighted the case of Officer Matthew Belver, who McManus had fired, unsuccessfully, for a second time in 2016 after he was caught on camera telling a handcuffed Hispanic male he was going to “beat your ass.” The man was not being arrested on any charge, but Belver repeatedly taunted the man as he sat restrained in the patrol car, literally challenging him to a fight, offering to set him free if he could beat or even kill the officer.

It was not the first time Belver had been charged with mistreating civilians not charged with crimes. The first time he was fired by McManus, an arbitrator reduced his punishment to a 30-day suspension. This second time, to a 45-day suspension. Were Belver to be charged with a similar offense today, neither of those incidents could be cited as evidence of an officer unfit to wear a badge and carry a gun. The union contract prevents incidents more than two years old from being presented as evidence.

KSAT-TV recently followed up on the Washington Post investigation and examined police misconduct in San Antonio between 2010 and 2019. Broken Blue, a one-hour special report, aired in January. It’s compelling local television journalism.

Watch, for example, how Officer Tim Garcia aggressively moves to arrest an African American on a downtown street in 2018. When the individual asks why he is being arrested, the officer says it’s because he is a “f—– up n—–.” The incident was caught on Garcia’s body camera and led McManus to fire him. The officer’s blatant racism is beyond question. After a yearlong battle, an arbitrator put Garcia back in uniform.

Mike Helle, the SAPOA president, was interviewed by KSAT-TV. He described Belver as a good officer who had experienced “bad luck,” in the cited cases, whatever that means. Garcia deserved to keep his job, Helle argued, because more than six months had passed before he was punished.

Black Lives Matter representatives took to City Council chambers on Thursday and presented Nirenberg and Council members with a list of 10 changes needed to make citizens of color feel safer and less targeted by police. A key demand is to strengthen disciplinary procedures in the police union’s contract for officer misconduct.

A contentious, four-year standoff between the City and the union began with contract negotiations in 2014. City officials focused mainly on runaway health care costs, but one significant issue left unresolved was the inability to effectively discipline police officers for misconduct. That, experts say, is why officers often act with impunity. Individuals who lack the character to serve responsibly mistreat citizens without lasting consequences.

The real test of Nirenberg, City Council, and City Manager Erik Walsh and staff will come next year when a new police union contract is negotiated. Pressure is clearly mounting in the city as citizens demand that elected leaders change the way police treat minorities, especially African Americans. Pressure has built in the past, but this time it feels different, more intense, more enduring.

No one should have to live in fear of police officers, but African Americans here fear the police. Nirenberg’s legacy as mayor will be assured if he makes San Antonio a safer city for minority citizens. Keeping his promise, however, will be the hardest thing any mayor has tried in many years.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.