Nothing illustrates the chasm between police and citizens in San Antonio quite like the helicopters circling endlessly in the sky over peaceful protesters on downtown streets. The droning buzz of the chuffing rotors has become a daily signal that people are being watched from above.

There were three police helicopters circling in the first days of the protests. The pilots worked the downtown perimeter for hours.

It’s probably naive to think the San Antonio Police Department’s Excellence in Air to Ground Law Enforcement unit (EAGLE) is simply observing events on the ground. The stronger likelihood is that the police here, like the police in many cities, are surveilling citizens when it would be far more productive to come to ground and engage people. Police should not be allowed to secretly gather data on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

Why is a city government starved for public dollars spending money on helicopter surveillance? The police department should have helicopters for use in emergency situations, such as a hurricane or flooding. But a helicopter on the ground is more affordable than one in the air. Now would be a good time to park them.

Last week I wrote about how hard it is for San Antonio Police Chief William McManus to fire officers who break the law, violate use of force policies, or commit other serious transgressions. A 2017 Washington Post investigation, Fired/Rehired, into the 55 largest police departments in the country found that San Antonio had the highest incidence of fired officers winning back their badges through arbitration. The process, guaranteed in the union’s contract, is heavily weighted in favor of the accused. Previous incidents of wrongdoing more than two years old cannot be considered, and McManus is prohibited from punishing officers for anything discovered six months after the fact.

In San Antonio, bad cops have something approaching immunity, which sullies the reputation of the department and the work of officers who uphold their oath.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called on City Council members Thursday to prioritize disciplinary reform and balance spending on public safety ahead of police contract negotiations and budget talks that will begin in advance of the current contract expiring next year.

The need for greater police transparency is more vital now than ever if the force is to regain the confidence of the general public. The Black Lives Matter movement has captured widespread support in the country, even in the South, among whites as well as people of color.

Police need to admit there is a problem. Not the police chief, but police: union leaders, the uniformed officers on the streets, and trainers at the academy, where recruits are taught more about use of firearms than about San Antonio’s economic and racial segregation and how sensitivity to such matters should inform them in their work.

My longtime colleague Rick Casey wrote convincingly last week about the culture of lying in police departments, whether it is justifying how a routine traffic stop escalated into use of force or testifying in court to win a conviction.

Protesters might not have the staying power to march for months, but Nirenberg and the City Council should make a unified public pledge that there will be no new police contract in 2021, no pay increases, without significant concessions by the union on disciplinary procedures.

A police officer blocks traffic as a Black Lives Matter protester ascends the West Commerce Street bridge. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Change is also needed at the state level, but much can be done locally. The department should be transparent and disclose all serious disciplinary actions without waiting for reporters to file public records requests. Citizens should be told about every fired officer who wins back his or her badge through arbitration and what assignments they are subsequently given.

City negotiators should also demand that more officers move into community policing and that the department “demilitarize” wherever it can. We do not need armed officers responding to complaints about the homeless, drug addicts, or individuals who need mental health services. The City should push for the creation of more units like the mental health unit. Its members dress in plain clothes, drive unmarked vehicles, and are trained in de-escalation techniques. They treat mentally ill individuals with empathy and patience rather than stun guns and body slams.

The mostly young protest organizers and marchers have inspired this city and the nation, but they cannot be expected to carry on forever. They need elected officials to signal emphatically that they have received the message and this time will act decisively. Then-Mayor Ivy Taylor and her City Council in 2016 gave the police a pass on the last contract, with only two Council members, Rey Saldaña and Nirenberg, voting no and pushing for a better contract.

We need real reform this time.

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Robert Rivard

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.