Growing up, John “Danny” Diaz, the new president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, never wanted to be a police officer like his father was.
“I grew up with it, and it was a different time. … It wasn’t for me,” Diaz said as he leaned back in his office chair.
He entered the academy on a dare from a friend who asked him if he was too scared to try out. At the time, more than 30 years ago, he was working in data processing at a local hospital.
“My mom didn’t raise any scaredy cats,” Diaz said. “We went and we both passed [the test]. … Once I got in, I liked it.”
He’s not afraid of a challenge and 2021 will be among the most challenging years for the union between what’s expected to be arduous contract negotiations and an election that puts that very process at risk.
“I was told the other day that I was crazy for wanting to have this position at this time, but you know … someone has to fight the fight,” he said. “I just think it was my turn to do that. … We got here because other people took the initiative to step up. It was done for me, and I’m just trying to pay it forward.”
Collective bargaining talks between the union and the City of San Antonio for a new labor contract begin Friday. After a summer of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, there’s a renewed push for police reform, and the City has set its sights on changing procedural rules in the contract related to discipline for conduct violations and punishment appeals. It’s a process that usually takes several months – the last contract that reformed police health care plans took more than two years.
Meanwhile, voters will be asked in May if they want to repeal local implementation of a state law that gives police officers collective bargaining rights. Fix SAPD, a group that formed over the summer to seek police reform, is leading the repeal initiative involving that law, which is Chapter 174 of the Texas Local Government Code.
Contract negotiations take up considerable time and resources under normal circumstances, but a campaign to stop the repeal effort will further stretch those resources, he said.
“It’s not different from being out on the street on the job,” Diaz said. “We’re spread thin all the time.”
He has selected a new negotiation team, composed mostly of internal union leaders. Diaz, 53, and a new executive board were sworn in on Feb. 1. But the union will again hire Ron DeLord, a Georgetown attorney and former president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, as chief negotiator.
Former union President Mike Helle repeatedly clashed with Police Chief William McManus, then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley (who led the charge to rein in police and firefighter health care costs to the City), and other city officials. He was union president for 12 years.
McManus said the relationship between the City and police union had “turned the corner” during a press conference held at police headquarters to welcome Diaz last month.
Diaz’s leadership style differs from Helle’s as he is focused on communication, Diaz said.
“To me, communication is key,” he said, adding he wants to rebuild working relationships with City and County officials. “We can’t get things accomplished if we’re at each other’s throats. … You’re better off working together than against each other so that’s my mindset.”
He’s open to discussing disciplinary reform at the negotiating table.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Diaz said. “The thing with this is that the policies and procedures that we have in place work.”
He will not blindly defend any officer who does something wrong, but “I have a responsibility to make sure that the city follows the guidelines that we have in place.”
Cops don’t want bad cops on the force, he said. “They make us look bad.”
In the case of Officer Matthew Luckhurst, who admitted to feeding a feces sandwich to a person experiencing homelessness but was later fired for another offense, “our own officers were the ones that turned him in.”
Bad cops exist on the force and cops who commit crimes should be held accountable, he said.
“Wherever you go, there’s a bad apple, right?” he said. “And in this department, these [contractual] policies and procedures do not protect criminal acts. That’s one thing I need to make clear because the misconception or misinformation is that we protect officers that commit criminal acts.”
Diaz stands firmly against Fix SAPD, which he sees as an agent of misinformation.
“The problem here is that the activists seem to think that they’re taking everything away from us … but it’s detrimental to the city also,” he said.
If Chapter 174 is repealed, the City can’t negotiate a contract that includes rules – or possible police reforms – that violate stipulations in Chapter 143. That law details stipulations in hiring, firing, promoting, and disciplining police officers – some of which activists and City officials have deemed problematic.
Chapter 143 puts a statute of limitations that prohibits the police chief from punishing officers for conduct violations after 180 days and limits the chief’s flexibility in issuing suspensions. Ultimately, Diaz said, police officers won’t want to work in San Antonio.
If a contract is approved by City Council before the election, then it will remain in place until its term ends regardless of the status of Chapter 174.
Running parallel to the ballot initiative conversation, high on the list of the City’s state legislative agenda is reforming that chapter, City officials have said. Fix SAPD was unable to get the required signatures (more than 78,400) to get Chapter 143 on the ballot but has vowed to try again in a future election.
“I don’t think that [the petitions were] a well-thought-out plan,” he said. “I get it with what was going on across the country. They felt they had the need to do it here also. But, again, we don’t have the same issues that they have in other parts of the country.”
Diaz was born and raised in San Antonio, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, served on SAPD’s South Patrol, and spent 20 years as a member of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. He was shot three times while executing a narcotics warrant and received the Meritorious Conduct Award and the Purple Heart, according to a union press release. (The San Antonio Report has a pending public information request for his records.)
Diaz, who is Hispanic, said he has experienced implicit bias in other major cities while playing baseball for Dallas Baptist University (he later graduated from Texas State University) but never in San Antonio.
“We’re so diverse here,” he said. “I’ve never really seen it … [but that] doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
When Helle was at the helm, he called implicit bias – the concept that people subconsciously attribute often negative qualities to a member of a certain social group – “a bunch of nonsense.”
“[Chicago] was the first time I encountered it. And it’s scary. Especially back then for an 18-year-old. And I weighed 130 pounds soaking wet,” Diaz said.
In addition to the contract negotiation and ballot initiative, voters will be picking their City Council members and the mayor. An endorsement from the police or fire unions is historically widely sought-after, though this year it may be considered a double-edged sword given the political climate.
They have yet to endorse any candidates, as the filing period for candidates to get on the ballot doesn’t close until Feb. 12.
“We don’t know [whom we’re endorsing],” Diaz said. “We’re holding interviews next week, and there’s a lot of people in certain races. This is no secret: More than likely, we’ll stay out of those races till we find out who’s in a runoff.
“But I will tell you that all our efforts and our focus is on making sure that the collective bargaining does not get repealed. So we’re focused on that. If this election goes by without any endorsements, so be it.”