Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Thursday defended San Antonio Police Chief William McManus’ handling of a recent human smuggling incident that has drawn criticism from local and state leaders.

“The attacks on Police Chief McManus are nothing more than political theater based on a fictitious narrative, and the political operatives that are selling this theatrical production may sell in stagecraft, but their story is fiction,” Nirenberg said Thursday during a Human Trafficking Awareness event at City Hall. “There are facts that are important to this case, and our police chief is upholding the law.”

On Dec. 23, police arrested the driver of a tractor-trailer for smuggling 12 migrants. The Bexar County District Attorney’s office charged Herbert Nichols, 58, under a state statute that makes knowingly transporting people who are in the United States illegally a crime, rather than handing over the case to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. SAPD interviewed the migrants and released them – without charges or background checks – to the local Catholic Charities.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday criticized SAPD’s handling of the case, asking the State attorney general to determine whether McManus violated Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017.

The San Antonio Police Officers Association has asked that McManus be placed on administrative leave. Union President Mike Helle told the Rivard Report Thursday he believes McManus didn’t handle the incident correctly and that he hopes an outside investigation will take place.

Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), who used to work as a consultant for the police union, released a statement on Jan. 5 questioning McManus’ handling of the incident. Brockhouse also asked why City Council was not alerted until 10 days after it occurred.

(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg greet one another outside of City Hall.
(From left) City Manager Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg greet one another outside of City Hall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Thursday McManus said he could not divulge details of the incident as it remains under investigation by local law enforcement, but that he and his officers acted within the law.

“There were no SAPD protocols broken, that’s No. 1,” McManus explained. “No. 2, [Homeland Security Investigations] was on the scene, and they had every opportunity to do what they needed to do on the scene and at public safety headquarters … Why they didn’t take [the migrants into] custody, I don’t know.

“There’s a line drawn, and on the other side of it is the immigration issue. That immigration issue is up to HSI, and not SAPD.”

Answering calls for an investigation into the incident’s handling, Nirenberg said the City would “cooperate with any lawful investigation.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) echoed Nirenberg’s sentiment in a Thursday afternoon press release: “We welcome a complete and swift investigation to further prove that our San Antonio Police Department and Police Chief William McManus are guilty of one thing: doing their job.”

HSI was given “unfettered access,” Nirenberg said, its agents having been present at the scene and during witness interviews.

“Homeland Security had the option of taking [immigrants] into custody and they passed,” the mayor said. “The San Antonio Police Department had no legal basis to hold them. The City could have faced legal liability if the police had held them.”

Answering the question of why the migrants were released without criminal background checks, Nirenberg said the SAPD’s job is to ensure local public safety. Brockhouse raised the same concern.

“That’s all the law requires, that’s all the law allows,” Nirenberg said. “Federal immigration is not part of our purview, nor can it be.”

City Attorney Andrew Segovia declined to comment on whether he thought the police department’s handling of the incident constituted a violation of Texas’ immigration-enforcement law.

Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, a nonprofit providing legal and other services to immigrants and refugees in Central and South Texas, defended the SAPD’s actions. Claims that the migrants’ whereabouts are unknown are false, Ryan said, adding that his organization is in constant contact with them.

“… RAICES has been involved since the crime scene,” he explained. “[The migrants] continue to remain willing and eager to assist police and prosecutors in this case.”

City leaders and representatives from several advocacy groups enlisted the public’s help in identifying and reporting possible instances of human trafficking and announced the new hashtag – #NotInMyCity – to heighten the public’s awareness of human trafficking and smuggling.

Rebekka Murphy holds a pledge to end human trafficking in San Antonio for Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Rebekka Murphy holds a pledge to end human trafficking in San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

McManus called human trafficking “the most common form of modern-day slavery” and urged community members to call 911 or SAPD’s sex crimes unit should they witness suspicious activity.

“SAPD’s focus on human-trafficking cases has increased dramatically in the last few years,” he said. “By getting the word out that human trafficking does exist, we’re able to get victims and witnesses to come forward so that we can file cases and arrest those responsible for these heinous cases.”

SAPD conducted 38 investigations involving 43 victims in 2016, McManus said. In 2017, 81 investigations involving 92 victims.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood said 80 percent of local human-trafficking victims are children.

“That should piss you off because it makes me upset, and I’m never going to be okay with it,” he said, adding that nine life sentences have been levied for human traffickers since the County created its Human Trafficking Task Force in 2013.

“We value life in our community. We value children in our community,” LaHood added.

Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood speaks about Human Trafficking Awareness Day in front of City Hall.
Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood speaks about human trafficking in front of City Hall. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Deana Franks, interim executive director of The Rape Crisis Center, said San Antonio is positioned to be a national leader in raising awareness of human trafficking and smuggling. One reason, she said, is the City’s geographic location – the crossroads of interstates 35 and 10, two major highways smugglers often use.

“The Rape Crisis Center wants to send a message that San Antonio will not tolerate anyone in our city being exploited or sold in any manner,” she said. “We ask that you stand in solidarity with us on human trafficking by proclaiming ‘Not In My City.’”

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.