Two very different groups of San Antonians gathered this week to question top law enforcement officials about policies and procedures. Both discussions revealed details about what local law enforcement already is doing to improve crime response and community relations, as well as areas where it could improve.

On Monday night, it was a group of about 40 residents on the Eastside at a touring town hall event: there they lobbed questions, accusations, and calls for community engagement at the county sheriff, city police chief, district attorney, and a state representative.

On Tuesday, it was City Council’s turn – or at least the five members who make up the Public Safety Committee – to ask what police department officials are doing to rebuild community “trust and confidence” in the wake of a recent case of negligence involving a Special Victims Unit detective and his supervisor.

The San Antonio Police Department formed an internal task force to examine its standard operating procedures, especially in major crimes, soon after SVU Det. Kenneth Valdez was dismissed for mishandling over 130 sex crimes and domestic violence cases.

The task force’s efforts will be enhanced by an outside consultant, Robert Stewart of Florida-based Bobcat Training and Consulting, SAPD Lt. Jesse Salame told the council committee Tuesday.

“He’s going to look at some of our process improvements,” Salame said.

Salame and Chief William McManus don’t expect large changes; rather they anticipate adding more “checks and balances” to the system. The department already implemented an additional step in the case reporting process to superiors, McManus said, to avoid another situation that allowed Valdez to slip through the cracks.

“All of the supervisors from that unit will transfer or retire over this,” he said. “We’ve replaced them with investigators that have proven themselves in the past.”

Both the City Council and the public will be able to review reports generated by the task force and an independent attorney – hired by the City to review the case – in January, McManus said.

“People have been held accountable [in the SVU case], more so than any other organization will ever be held accountable in the City of San Antonio,” said Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6). “Police officers and firefighters live under the biggest microscope there is. Chief, I think you jumped right on it.”

While law enforcement leaders and City Council largely see the neglectful SVU detective as an outlier of an otherwise praised police department, violent crime is up in San Antonio and in many major cities.

District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood is on a 15-week tour across the city, focusing the series of town hall forums on community safety. The second town hall took place Monday at the Barbara Jordan Community Center on the Eastside, which has been home to some of the highest crime rates in the city for decades.

“I’ve been to too many town hall meetings where community leaders and politicians talk to the community instead of talking with the community,” LaHood said.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood.
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood observes as Police Chief William McManus addresses community members at the Barbara Jordan Community Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Instead of holding questions until the end of a long panel discussion, LaHood, McManus, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2), and State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) listened to constituents for most of the two-hour meeting.

The idea is to “saturate” the districts with conversation, LaHood said, and “then at the end of it, we should have a real good idea of what our community needs as a whole – the answers come from the community, too.”

Residents who attended Monday’s town hall raised issues such as fear of retribution after reporting crimes, increased gang activity, the need for police officers to more actively engage with citizens, lack of parental responsibility, jail recidivism and community re-entry, and inadequate education and workforce development – which are routinely brought up at public safety meetings on the Eastside.

Katrina Ornelas, who lives in Highland Park, said she is tired of the “snitches get stitches” attitude. Several community members joined her in expressing their fear of retaliation after reporting a crime.

“We need to stand up and be fearless,” said Ornelas, whose husband killed in a seemingly random shooting at a convenience store in June.

Katrina Ornelas of Highland Park
Eastside resident Katrina Ornelas addresses the chief, sheriff, district attorney, and state representative during the community meeting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Officials laid out various programs available to people interested in learning more about law enforcement and justice systems, community policing initiatives, and even programs for people in jail.

“We start the process of reentry the minute they break the threshold of my jail,” Salazar said, outlining the job training, education, and parenting classes available.

Part of some people’s frustration with the justice system lies in their lack of awareness of  the tools available to them, Shaw said, adding that he would consider working with local utility companies to include information on such programs in residents’ utility bills.

At the end of the day, McManus said, you can’t arrest crime away.

“How are we doing on the war against drugs?” he asked rhetorically. “Laugh for me.”

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

People will continue to repeat crimes as long as the conditions around them remain the same, he said.

“I think that the town halls have value just through the dialogue. There’s a lot of education that took place [Monday night],” McManus told the Rivard Report after the meeting. More education and workforce development are common “solutions” that emerge from these meetings, but “a lot of times it just turns out to be a nice conversation.”

In the coming weeks, 11 more town hall meetings will take place on Monday nights from 6-8 p.m., save for the week of Christmas.

Meetings in 2018 will be released at a later date and will be published on the District Attorney’s Office website.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org