The task of bridging one of the nation’s most sensitive divides has taken an unusual form in Mayor Ivy Taylor’s Council on Police-Community Relations, with San Antonio politicians, activists, and community leaders sitting around circular tables jotting down ideas on super-sized Post-Its.

The first police-community meeting was closed to the public and media, the second was open, the third again was closed. In the committee’s fourth meeting Monday, the tone was polite, even collaborative – a stark contrast to the raw pain and mistrust that has escalated on both sides of the issue earlier this year. By the end, a tentative feeling of progress percolated through the council.

A number of notable absences, however, tainted that sentiment. Not only was one particularly fierce member of San Antonio’s Black Lives Matter movement, whose demonstrations against the City’s police contract inspired the council’s creation, missing from the meeting, but all three committee members representing the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association were also absent, reportedly on assignments.

The session included many absent appointees leaving empty chairs throughout the room.
The session included many absent appointees leaving empty chairs throughout the room.

“I think who’s missing is a lot of the people who are directly engaged and passionately involved,” Jonathan-David Jones, a leader in the movement against the police contract, told the committee. “… Now of course, that goes both ways.”

Taylor responded with a familiar refrain.

“We bent over backwards to get some of those people here,” she said. “But if all they want to do is grandstand and leave when it’s time to come up with solutions, I really can’t do anything.”

The comment was aimed at activists like Mike Lowe, leader of SATX4, who withdrew from the council after declaring it a “losing battle” in the second meeting. Jones said many activists feel that attending merely indulges a dog-and-pony show aimed at distracting the public from the excessive protections afforded to SAPD officers in their new contract.

But many of those advocating for greater police accountability rejected that notion and commended Taylor, Police Chief William McManus, District Attorney Nico LaHood, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) for attending the event.

Community members who oppose police carte blanche and those with close-minded law enforcement corollaries are never going to work together, LaHood said, “so you’re really trying to get the reasonable people in the middle that (we) really want to try to encourage to change their worldview of each other.”

That would seem to put the police and the communities of color that feel targeted by law enforcement on a level playing field. But some activists argued that, having sworn to protect and serve, officers bear a greater responsibility for mending relationships.

Following an introduction by the council’s moderator, UTSA Professor of Criminal Justice Michael Gilbert, the first half of the meeting consisted of small group discussions. Gilbert framed these conversations as the “fundamental building block of constructive police-community relationships” and the bedrock for effective policy and procedures.

In a sense, the meeting – which only about 20 of the original three dozen or so members attended – showed the immense challenge of forging a productive dialogue on issues of good policing. Just as recent examples of violence against police officers – such as the murder of SAPD Detective Benjamin Marconi last month – often fuel divisive “Blue Lives Matter” campaigns, so do the shootings of black men which frequently spark widespread protests before law enforcement and the public even know the full details. But as several groups discussed, the pain on both sides stems from the same cycles of trauma and mistrust.

The cordial atmosphere finally broke after the small groups presented the main points of their discussions and the floor was turned over to community members for the first time in all four meetings.

One citizen speaker, Denise McVae, described a sense of powerlessness in her Eastside community. Expanding violence and drug dealing runs rampant in her neighborhood, McVae said. “When I first started to call and report the crimes, responding officers would tell me that if that sort of activity bothered me, then I should not have moved to the neighborhood.

“… When I would attempt to explain what the laws actually said, the officers often became abusive. They either treated me as a nuisance or even as a criminal suspect myself.”

At one point, McVae said she was arrested and jailed for “allegedly having a garage sale without a permit,” while her neighbors openly practiced organized crime.

Denise McVae uses her time to detail crimes that occur outside her home.
Denise McVae uses her time to detail crimes that occur outside her home. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Taylor encountered similar stories in her past work on the Eastside, where she lives in a home in Dignowity Hill.

SAPD, in partnership with several federal agencies, has significantly ratcheted up its enforcement on the Eastside to address this concern, McManus said.

McVae later told the Rivard Report that she didn’t believe more enforcement was the answer.

“What we want is actual targeted, efficient, and reliable enforcement against actual crimes that are occurring against the citizens,” she said. “Not just a bunch of yahoos running around bullying the people.”

If nothing else, the dialogue unpacked the broad complexities facing police officers and communities. It also unearthed a wide array of partial solutions, from former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson’s emphasis on reintegration of ex-convicts to LaHood’s suggestions to host police-community block parties and mandatory therapy sessions for officers.

But for many participants, one unavoidable roadblock was the SAPD’s perceived inability to adequately hold its officers accountable.

“From the citizens’ standpoint, we don’t understand, Chief, why you discipline an officer for bad behavior and (the union) can put him back on the force,” community leader Beverly Watts-Davis said toward the end of the meeting. “I want to know why my tax dollars do not hold that person accountable, because if I did what he did, I’d go to jail.”

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus speaks to a specific attendee in regards to crime and mental health.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus speaks to a specific attendee in regards to crime and mental health.

The long-awaited police union contract was approved in September 9-2 amid some community and Council concern over disciplinary procedures.

It will be at least another five years before the police contract can be adjusted. In the meantime, Taylor hopes the meeting will garner genuine action on both sides.

“What we’re going to do next is keep listening, keep talking, gathering information,” she told the Rivard Report. “I want to see a list of recommendations made to the City Council of action steps we can take, but I also hope other folks in the room will take responsibility and maybe follow up on some of the suggestions that were made through various community-based groups.”

It’s unclear, however, how relevant these efforts will be so long as the police and community’s most critical stakeholders choose not to participate.

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.