A long line of Eastside neighbors, all but a few of them African-Americans, waited their turn to speak and pose a question at the microphone Thursday night. Some waited patiently, some not so patiently, to address local and federal law enforcement authorities, black community leaders, and civil rights lawyers and activists. The pews of the New Light Baptist Church were filled with black folks, young and old, from the surrounding neighborhoods who had come to a town hall titled, “Justice for All.”
The mood was somber at the start, and then turned tense and even confrontational and disruptive as the night wore on. Tempers grew short, and long-contained feelings of anger spilled into the church aisles and echoed off its walls in shouts and slogans. Most of the people standing in line didn’t have questions to ask because they knew there were no definitive answers. What they wanted was an opportunity to air grievances, to be heard, to be told black lives matter.
“When is it going to get better?” shouted one frustrated young man in anger after Blaise Labbe, the evening’s moderator, repeatedly interrupted the young man’s long, rambling indictment of local authorities, pushing him to ask a question. “When is it going to get better? That’s my question. I want every one of them to answer,” the young man said, sweeping his arm toward the seated panel in the front of the church. He then walked to the back of the line, still talking loudly, hoping for another chance to win the microphone.
San Antonio suddenly finds itself one of many U.S. cities where law enforcement relations with the inner city African-American community have hit a new low in the wake of fatal shootings, and a lack of any police prosecutions by former District Attorney Susan Reed or her successor, current District Attorney Nico LaHood. Thursday’s town hall made clear there is a widespread view in the black community that bad police officers are indemnified by a collective bargaining agreement that blocks San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and other city officials from meting out punishments equal to the offenses or dealing decisively with bad cops.
“Hey, I’ve got tattoos, I’ve been arrested, I’m not your typical DA,” LaHood told one questioner attacking his commitment to justice for victims of police violence. LaHood’s comments drew a few comments from the pews questioning his political will to prosecute police who shoot unarmed citizens.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus listened as a speaker, who introduced himself as a reformed gang member with an arrest record, criticized the police presence on the city’s Eastside.
“I’ve never seen police officers interact with people in the community. Those officers need to get familiar with the community, get out of their cars, shake hands … things ain’t never going to get better without changes,” the man said.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” McManus said. “We need to be on the streets. We need to be meeting people.” That is not easy, he added, when police have to respond to 1.5 million calls a year and can only arrive at the scene of a call in a timely way by patrol car.
McManus has been sharing a message of police reform in recent community meetings, talking about new rules to limit use of force, “de-escalation” of tense police-citizen confrontations, and efforts to rebuild community trust among minority groups in inner city neighborhoods. New teaching methods are being adopted to offer police cadets a different orientation to community policing.
“We’ve changed our academy from a boot camp environment to teaching procedural justice,” McManus said.
“What is pro-ce-du-ral justice?” an incredulous voice from the pews called out.
“It’s police jargon,” he said. “We had to make up a big name for it: Treating people right. It means treating people right. We are pushing reform in the San Antonio Police Department, probably faster than any other city in the country.”
A frustrated man seated near McManus stood up, no longer willing to wait his turn to ask a question. He acted out the scene of the Feb. 4 fatal police shooting of Antronie Scott, 34, by San Antonio Police Officer John Lee outside a Northeast side apartment complex. Scott’s mother has just sat down after tearfully saying that McManus had told her at the scene of her son’s death that he had nothing in his hands when he was shot. McManus corrected her, saying he said Scott did not have a gun, but did have a cell phone, which Lee said he mistakenly thought was a gun when he opened fire at close range.
“Where is the justification?” the man demanded. Turning to LaHood, he said, “I’m expecting an indictment…this officer should be in handcuffs. When is he going to be in jail?”
The question was rhetorical and went unanswered.
The Rev. Julius Sheppard, a panelist and pastor of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church two miles farther east on Martin Luther King Drive, then stood up to speak.
“There is a problem that’s existed in our community since I was a little boy,” said Sheppard, 58. “Growing up, I was raised to respect the police department, but I also was raised what to expect with the police. I am speaking to all of you as a man of God: Why is it that we have the highest concentration of police officers in our community, yet we have the highest crime rate? … The economic development opportunities that the mayor spoke of don’t arrive to Martin Luther King Drive, they don’t arrive to Burnett Street.”
Daryl Washington, a Dallas civil rights officer and member of the panel, then stood to speak.
“San Antonio has one of the strongest police unions in the country, and the chief’s hands are tied,” Washington said. “Police unions shouldn’t be allowed to endorse district attorneys or other political candidates.”
Washington cited a police officer who assaulted a women while on the job and was allowed under the contract to use vacation days to serve his suspension and was never criminally prosecuted.
As other speakers decried what they described as police impunity for abusing citizens, civil rights activist Mike Lowe of SATX4 led in a line of protestors shouting loudly as they came down the church aisle to form a group around McManus, hoisting placards and chanting. The program soon ended, disrupted and inconclusive.
Thursday night was a lost opportunity for the Eastside community to move beyond venting its frustrations and carrying out acts of disruption when they could have engaged McManus, LaHood and others in a more productive conversation with less rhetoric and more specific measures to rebuild trust. The officials who are meeting with leaders of the city’s African-American community, including Mayor Ivy Taylor and Chief McManus, share their concerns and want to avert further incidents that end in tragedy. What recent tensions have underscored is that any change in police culture will probably come slowly and be generational.
City officials and police union leaders have fought for two years over a new collective bargaining agreement, unable to come to terms on the shared cost of health care benefits and new wages. The issues of disciplining police officers in a more equitable manner that allows top police officials to punish and terminate bad cops hasn’t even been raised yet. Until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the City’s lawsuit challenging the legality of the 10-year evergreen clause that affords indefinite protection to police wages and benefits, it is highly unlikely the two sides will agree to meet to consider other issues.
*Top image: Chief William McManus and Diane Peppar, the mother of recently killed Antronie Scott, disagree on what was said to be held in her sons hand on the night of his death. Photo by Scott Ball.