This story has been updated.
Volunteers and community organizers began gathering signatures over Labor Day weekend for a petition aimed at dismantling the police union in San Antonio.
If they collect and verify roughly 100,000 signatures from registered voters by mid-February, repealing Chapters 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code would become a ballot measure on which San Antonians would vote in May.
The chapters detail stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers, as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower police unions. If repealed, uniformed police could essentially have the same labor rights as non-uniformed City employees.
Organizers say these laws shield bad cops from accountability while police union representatives say they protect officers from unfair punishment or termination. Cities across the U.S. are re-evaluating their police conduct and disciplinary policies in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, this May.
Fix SAPD, a grassroots organization, and several partnering groups plan to capitalize on increased early voting turnout and voter registration for the November election to reach its signature goal. The campaign faces a particularly difficult challenge with the coronavirus pandemic, which has canceled events and closed locations where petitioners would typically set up.
“We want to take advantage of early voting … this election cycle is going to bring out everybody,” Fix SAPD leader Ojiyoma Martin said. Fix SAPD estimates it can get half of the signatures required during early voting, which runs Oct. 13-30.
However, to do so, Fix SAPD will need more volunteers, including petitioners and notaries, Martin said. The group already has hosted several training sessions and will continue to do so.
Signatures are valid only if a person is registered to vote in San Antonio on the date they sign. People registering to vote must have their application postmarked and sent to the Bexar County Elections Department by Oct. 5.
Fix SAPD is working with Texas Organizing Project (TOP), Black Freedom Factory, Reliable Revolutionaries, and several other groups to mobilize volunteers at high-turnout voting sites and other high-traffic places, Martin said.
Many of those groups are currently working on shifting funding away from the police department toward social services and public health initiatives in the City’s 2021 budget, which City Council will vote on Sept. 17.
Martin said she expects the petitions will gain more attention after that vote, adding that she considers this week to be the petition’s “soft launch” before it ramps up recruiting more volunteers.
“This is going to take bodies,” she said. “The first step is getting these signatures.”
To get a repeal of Chapter 174 on the ballot, 20,000 signatures (or 5 percent of the number of voters in the preceding general election, which is 19,337) will be required. This chapter, adopted in 1974, allows police and fire employees to collectively bargain.
There is a much higher threshold of signatures for Chapter 143: 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the most recent municipal election. San Antonio had 784,148 registered voters participate in the May 2019 election and 10 percent is 78,415. This chapter, adopted in 1947, governs police hiring, promotions, discipline, and records. It also allows local contracts to supersede or supplant civil service laws outlined in Chapter 143. Not all cities have adopted these rules, but both can be repealed by a local vote.
The number of signatures required for repeal is dictated by each statue.
For perspective, TOP and other groups took two months to collect and submit more than 144,000 petition signatures for the paid sick leave ordinance in 2018.
The deadline for the City to receive the signatures is not yet set for the May election, but the City Clerk needs at least 20 days to verify names, and the ballot will be finalized by February 12. That leaves roughly Jan. 18-22 for a deadline to turn in signatures.
The petition that Fix SAPD has launched targets only the police union, not fire, but the City Attorney’s Office clarified that both departments would be impacted because the original laws were adopted to include both.
While City leadership – including Police Chief William McManus, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and City Manager Erik Walsh – has acknowledged serious issues with the arbitration process in the union’s labor contract, fixing the contract isn’t enough to address the underlying union culture that “lets bad cops off the hook,” Martin said.
Repealing these laws is another way to “defund the police,” said San Antonio Police Officer Association President Mike Helle, because it strips away the ability to bargain for better wages and benefits.
“San Antonians strongly support their police and want to see more police in their neighborhoods, not less,” Helle said.
But other police forces, such as the Dallas Police Department, which has not adopted these state laws, still have the ability to negotiate health care and wages. They, like San Antonio’s Park Police, operate under “meet and confer” contracts to determine terms of employment.
City and union officials have said they expect to start negotiating the next contract, which expires on Sept. 30, 2021, early next year.
Those negotiations would likely be cut short if voters repeal Chapters 143 and 174 in May. City officials have said the current contract would be void without Chapter 174.
Fix SAPD is not pushing to defund or “abolish” the police, Martin said. “We want accountability.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the number of signatures needed and the potential impact to fire department employees.