The 30 members of Mayor Ivy Taylor’s Council on Police-Community Relations met for the second time Tuesday evening at the Municipal Plaza building, this time “to take an inventory of ideas” and suggestions on potential policy changes and practices to improve local policing efforts and strengthen the bond between law enforcement and the community.
This meeting was open to the public and the media, unlike the first one held last month at Sam Houston High School, which focused on airing out council members’ concerns.
The council – which is made up of elected officials, civic and religious leaders, police union members, activists, and other community members – was assembled amid unrest concerning strained police-community relations across the nation that have become more localized over the past few years.
The shootings of two local black men – Marquise Jones, 23, and Antronie Scott, 36 – and a number of similar occurrences across the country sparked local protest. Mike Lowe, organizer with SATX4 and member of the Police-Community Relations Council, was at the helm of local demonstrations calling for Taylor and City officials to hold cops who kill citizens, namely unarmed people of color, accountable. One of the main efforts Lowe led was the call for City Council to restructure its contract with the police union to include accountability measures for those officers.
The attendants Tuesday worked in small groups to come up with concrete ideas to eventually form a recommendation or work plan for consideration by the City’s Criminal Justice, Public Safety and Services committee, a City Council advisory group.
About 20 citizens not on the council stood by during the conversation and were invited to submit their own questions, suggestions, and concerns on index cards to City staff and Taylor for review. City Manager Sheryl Sculley and City Council members Alan Warrick (D2), Rebecca Viagran (D3), and Rey Saldaña (D4) also were present for the roundtable discussions.
The council’s suggestions ranged from bolstering community education efforts for citizens to become more aware of their legal rights to increasing the number of SAFFE units across the city and further engaging the faith-based community for support.
Other suggestions included offering more incentives for community members, especially people of color, to join the police force to create a better connection between officers and the communities they oversee.
The City currently offers incentives and gives preference to those San Antonians who apply to become peace officers, but those efforts could be enhanced to better serve the community’s interest, Sculley said.
Much of the conversation centered around increasing transparency within the police department, especially involving its training and disciplinary procedures.
All officers are required to complete crisis intervention training, for example, but state law only mandates that it is renewed every 48 months. Some council members suggested making those de-escalation and procedural justice training efforts more in depth and more frequent.
Another suggestion was inviting more police union leadership, including San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle, to the table as part of the council.
“In order for this to work that leadership needs to be involved in this (council),” said grandson of civil rights leader Rev. Claude Black and Police-Community Relations Council member Taj Matthews.
Some changes discussed cannot be implemented at this time because of the collective bargaining agreement between the City and the police union, which won’t go up for negotiations again for another five years, but Taylor said the group shouldn’t rule them out altogether.
According to Police Chief William McManus, who gave a presentation at the start of the meeting on local police reform efforts that have occurred since he was appointed chief in 2006, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has “made some difficult changes.”
The department has improved the way officers respond to domestic violence calls, assembled a Chief’s Advisory Action Board to hear complaints made against police officers for misconduct, required every officer to receive crisis intervention and procedural justice training, and implemented body worn cameras on two-thirds of officers including park police, bike patrols, and officers at several substations.
McManus said he anticipates finishing up body cam distribution by late spring or early summer of next year. All SAPD officers also will undergo implicit bias training this year to promote fair and impartial policing.
“Is there a finish line to this? No, there’s not,” McManus said. “We’ll continue to make positive changes with citizens and police officers …”
The next Police-Community Relations meeting will tentatively take place on Monday, Nov. 7, likely in the B Session room of the Municipal Plaza building, 114 W. Commerce St., where Tuesday’s meeting was held. Taylor said she envisions having one or more of the future sessions function like a town hall meeting, where the at-large community can publicly share its input with council members.
The process can get frustrating, but “the purpose (of this council) is to provide solutions, not just to come and make your statements and then leave when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and figure out how we can fix all of this,” Taylor said in response to the several Police-Community Council members – including Lowe – who left the meeting early after voicing their concerns.
“This is a losing battle,” Lowe told the Rivard Report after the meeting, adding that he gave up his spot on the Police-Community Relations Council and will not show up to future sessions. During the meeting, he asked McManus how any “cultural change” in SAPD can occur when 90% of officers in the police union voted no confidence in him this year.
McManus said he and the union have moved past that.
After the meeting, Lowe cited the recent incident involving uniformed SAPD officers donning Donald Trump campaign hats while escorting the GOP presidential candidate in a motorcade last week – a violation of department policy. In that situation and others, Lowe said, the SAPD officers were reprimanded with more training instead of more firm discipline he believes they deserve.
“The discipline doesn’t ever seem to equate to substantial change,” he added.
Taylor said she knows it will be a long process, but San Antonio has an opportunity to be a national leader in improving police-community relations.
“This is not something where six months from now we’re going to have it solved and we’re going to be finished,” she said, encouraging each of the participants to remain committed to the process.
“This is not about putting on a show,” she added. “I do think we have an opportunity here to really make a difference and for San Antonio to be leader, and I’m grateful that you all have consented to be a part of this process.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Jones was unarmed when he had a gun on his person at the time of his shooting.