Organizers have gathered more than 26,000 signatures so far for a petition that would give San Antonio voters in May the opportunity to decriminalize marijuana possession, end enforcement of abortion laws, establish a city “justice director” position, ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds and expand the city’s cite-and-release policy for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

The local police reform advocacy group ACT 4 SA aims to collect 35,000 signatures — anticipating that some won’t be verified — to submit to the City Clerk before the early January deadline.

But even if they miss that goal, voters can expect to see the slate of proposed changes, collectively known as the “Justice Charter,” to the city charter on the November 2023 ballot because the signatures collected are valid for six months.

“Two-thirds of the people I talked to sign [the petition],” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, which launched the petition effort in October. “They’re either for the initiatives or they just want to put it up to a vote because they think that this is something we should vote on.”

San Antonio’s police union has criticized the Justice Charter as an overreach into police policies as well as violations of state and federal law. Union President Danny Diaz has pointed out that chokeholds and no-knock warrants already are prohibited, while enforcement policies for marijuana and abortion are determined at the state level.

ACT 4 SA has 28 paid canvassers and dozens of other volunteers collecting signatures with progressive groups the Texas Organizing Project, Move Texas and local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. ACT 4 SA also is working with Ground Game Texas, which pushes for progressive legislation in communities across the state, 

Gathering petition signatures during the holidays is challenging, but Tomas said her group will attend events throughout the city, including the New Year’s Eve fireworks show downtown and potentially going door-to-door in select neighborhoods. San Antonio voters also can print and mail in a petition signature.

“Folks [are] learning that they can legislate themselves,” Tomas said. “We can literally put stuff on the ballot. They’re like: Oh, we can do this. We don’t want to wait on City Council or whoever.”

Tony Infante, 38, said he supports the Justice Charter because it codifies policies — such as the ban on chokeholds and cite-and-release.

“We all love [Police] Chief [William] McManus … but what’s going to happen with the next guy that comes around?” said Infante, a member of the Bexar County Young Democrats who attended ACT 4 SA’s holiday petition party at Bruno’s Dive Bar on Sunday.

The proposed charter change would adjust the existing cite-and-release policy — into law and expand the categories of nonviolent, low-level offenses that would be eligible for a citation rather than arrest. The current policy allows officers to issue citations, rather than arrest alleged offenders, for misdemeanor charges such as possessing small amounts of marijuana or other controlled substances, criminal mischief, theft of items or services worth less than $750 and driving without a valid license. Data on citations and arrests on eligible offenses are available here.

Executive Director of ACT 4 SA, Ananda Tomas, speaks to volunteers and residents gathered for a petition drive at Bruno's Dive Bar Sunday.
Executive Director of ACT 4 SA, Ananda Tomas, speaks to volunteers and residents gathered for a petition drive at Bruno’s Dive Bar on Sunday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The existing cite and release policy saved Bexar County $4.7 million in jail booking costs in its first year, Bexar County District Attorney’s Office officials have said.

“This is not just the moral thing to do, but it’s a fiscally responsible thing to do,” Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said to the crowd at the petition party. “So for those who like that argument, we can always go there. I’m super eager to assist in the gathering of signatures needed for this proposal. And I’m excited and eager to see if any of my other council colleagues or elected officials throughout the city will join me in calling for this.”

Infante expects that the slate of charter changes will attract younger voters to the ballot and entice them to become more politically active in general. The Justice Charter doesn’t change state or federal law, but it can at least send a message to legislators, he said.

Passing the changes would “show people that we as residents are progressive and want a better city and a better state,” he said.

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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