For many advocates of police reform in San Antonio, 2020 feels like déjà vu. Black Lives Matter protesters feel unheard by officials in their quest for police accountability, much like they did in 2016, when a group formed by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor was tasked to help strengthen relations between the community and the police in the wake of a bitter City Council vote that left lax disciplinary rules in the union’s labor contract.
The 27 recommendations of the Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations fell far short of meaningful reform for many advocates, and for the San Antonio Police Department, the recommendations were redundant. The report was received, but was largely ignored as SAPD had already launched several initiatives that, to the department, already fulfilled the recommendations.
Current protesters and SAPD officials hope plans outlined by the city manager to overhaul how the City views and funds public safety don’t produce the same outcome.
Though the current protests in public meetings have gone virtual due to coronavirus concerns, the demand for police accountability is nearly identical to that in 2016, when Black Lives Matter protesters filled City Council chambers to demand a change in disciplinary procedure in the police union contract that was approved that year. The difference this year is a call to “defund the police” or better fund social services.
The 2016 protests were unsuccessful and the rules outlined in the labor contract, which have allowed roughly 42 percent of fired officers to return to the force through arbitration or pressure of arbitration over the last decade, were not changed.
The first sign that the council was going to be a dud came in the name, said Jonathan-David Jones, an organizer with the now-inactive Black Lives Matter group SATX4 that led protests at the time. “Police and community relations? When was this ever what we were talking about?”
What they wanted was already lost in the contract. Still, his attitude at the time was: “let’s try it their way.”
“Most of this stuff isn’t addressing anything in the contract, but because we were thinking about systemic racism and oppression and oversight issues … surely we can attack at least some of that stuff,” Jones said.
The council, which functioned like a task force, met twice – once behind closed doors and another in public – before one representative of the Black Lives Matter movement and some police union representatives stopped showing up. In April 2017, after three more meetings, it issued a list of recommendations related to recruitment, training, awareness, and community collaboration. Several recommendations were centered around police officers interacting with primary school-aged children. None addressed the protesters’ original complaint: the lack of accountability in the contract.
“[That group] was convened to blunt the sting of a vote on a [contract] that didn’t address the core issues,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report. “The council was brought together under the auspices of addressing those issues and that was simply not the focus of that council.”
Mike Lowe, then with SATX4 and a member of the task force, walked out of the second meeting early in protest.
“I get why Mike left,” said Jones, who has since moved to Houston. “The whole group was a make-the-police-look-better-committee. It had nothing to do with justice. Every conversation was about how hard the police have it and how can we make the police look better in the community.
“I was just like: be better, let’s start there.”
The council included about 50 community members, among them elected officials, police union representatives, clergy, nonprofit leaders, and at least two Black Lives Matter activists (Jones and Lowe). When the recommendations were issued in 2017, 43 members were named on the final report. Lowe, who has since moved to Dallas-Fort Worth, was not listed. While Police Chief William McManus gave presentations at some of the meetings, neither he nor any other department representatives were listed as members of the task force.
Most of the recommendations were fulfilled or partially fulfilled by initiatives initiated by the department years, in some cases decades, before the task force convened, according to an internal review by SAPD and interviews with officials.
‘We are tired of task forces’
“There’s not a single recommendation that came from that task force that would have prevented Damian Daniels from being killed, [or] Antronie Scott, Marquise Jones, Norman Cooper, Charles Roundtree,” said Celeste Brown, a community organizer associated with the local “defund the police” movement. “Not a single one is addressing the root issue.”
That root issue is the lack of accountability afforded to police through the arbitration process outlined in Chapter 143 in the Texas Local Government Code and further defined in the police union’s contract, she said.
“You can change the rules of the game all you want, but if corrupt players still have the ability to maintain their jobs after the harm they caused, it doesn’t change anything,” Brown said.
The “weak” 2017 task force recommendations and a proposed 2021 budget that increases police spending by $8 million demonstrate to many that the city isn’t listening to residents who ranked public health services, housing affordability programs, and senior and youth services above traditional public safety services in community input surveys, Brown said.
“We are tired of task forces and subcommittees and meetings,” Brown said. “What we want is tangible change, and we don’t want to hear that that’s not possible. … By overfunding police and underfunding community services, we are literally perpetuating systems of inequity. There’s not a single recommendation that touches that.”
City Manager Erik Walsh has proposed a more “deliberate,” months-long community engagement process and analysis of what adjustments could be made to the police department before making changes in how the City defines what it means to fund public safety.
Austin City Council voted to cut its police budget by one-third ($150 million) this summer and reallocate some of that funding to social services and alternative public safety measures. Most of those “cuts” came from shifting functions and associated funding – such as forensics – to other departments, but they are still operating in the same way. Nearly $50 million of those cuts actually require further review, Austin Mayor Steve Adler has said.
That further review is exactly the kind of “thoughtful analysis” that San Antonio is undertaking, Nirenberg said. “I support the process laid out by City Manager Erik Walsh so that we have a thoughtful community dialogue about the investments we make to build a healthy and safe community.”
The proposed 2021 budget would shift $1.3 million from the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) to join a consolidated violence prevention division within the Metropolitan Health District, dedicate three SAPD vacancies to the Office of Innovation, remove overtime payment for police, as well as enhance homelessness outreach and healthy food initiatives.
More change is likely coming in next year’s budget, but change is also needed in the next collective bargaining agreement with the police union, Nirenberg said.
The mayor crafted a resolution that would commit the Council to reforming disciplinary procedures in those contract negotiations. Among other problematic clauses, the contract gives officers accused of misconduct access to evidence before they are questioned, establishes a six-month statute of limitations for what they can be fired or punished for, and limits the information that an arbitrator can consider when deciding whether to overturn a suspension or termination handed down by the chief of police.
That resolution was put on hold in June to collect more public input.
“The whole point is Council stating its position on the record as a body that we’re not going to accept a collective bargaining agreement that falls short of these reforms,” Nirenberg said.
Meanwhile, a petition is circulating to repeal State chapters 143 and 174, which detail stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers, as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower police unions.
A recent Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll of registered voters found that 68 percent agreed that the police union has been a barrier to holding local police officers accountable for misconduct. That poll, conducted in June, also found that 82 percent of respondents said they felt safer when they see police officers in their neighborhood.
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 stated in an email.
What happened to the task force’s recommendations?
The recommendations of the Council on Police-Community Relations, which did not come with dedicated funding or mandates, were received and reviewed by the police department, said SAPD spokeswoman Sgt. Michelle Ramos. The department found that most of the recommendations were already addressed by existing programs, one even dating back to the 1970s.
“We knew we were doing a lot of those things,” Ramos said. “Part of the problem … [was not] having someone from SAPD be on that council. … There is a disconnect and that’s maybe where we can improve as far as awareness of programs that already exist.”
The department’s Success Through Respect program, started in 2016, educates youth on how to interact with the police department; multiple units provide ride-along opportunities to the public; and the San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) Unit, which focuses on solving community crime problems alongside the community, has been expanded several times in recent years, Ramos said. The department’s Handle With Care program, which notifies school officials when a child has been involved in a traumatic event, started in 2019 – but not as a response to the recommendations, Ramos said.
That program – which started as a pilot in San Antonio Independent School District (ISD), North East ISD, and East Central ISD – was formed through building relationships with school districts and Communities in Schools San Antonio, said SAPD Public Information Officer Doug Green.
“We’re looking out for those young people who have experienced trauma,” Green said, especially trauma that involves law enforcement.
This kind of trauma-informed care has allowed them to reach kids even during a pandemic, he said. “We’re not good at bragging on that, I guess maybe we should.”
The first of the 27 recommendations was to improve the department’s website to improve policy transparency and provide more data surrounding crime.
On that point, the department acknowledged it could do better, Ramos said.
“[The SAPD website] was very messy to say the least,” she said, adding that they made some quick improvements, “but there are things that we want to add to that website. … A lot of what SAPD is doing we do not have on our website.”
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who was elected in 2019, asked about the recommendations during a budget meeting in June, which prompted the internal review. She found some recommendations that, in her view, could be better executed with little effort.
Those include establishing neighborhood “go teams” to deploy when officer-involved shootings occur, giving special recognition for “exceptional officers,” requiring officers to take psychological exams more often, and requiring a “long-range plan to facilitate more face-to-face discussions and dialogue with the public.”
SAPD provided examples in the review on how these recommendations are fulfilled, but Garcia said she’d like to see more follow-through.
“These [recommendations took] a lot of community development… it sounds like people just gave up on them,” she said. “It seemed like [the report] was collecting dust.”
Jones is largely indifferent to what becomes of the 2017 recommendations.
What matters now is that elected officials actually listen to residents and give teeth to their input, he said. “You have to get comfortable with the fact that this a polarizing conversation.”
“There is no way that you can be in the middle. … I fell like that’s why [changes in the budget] are moving slow, we’re always trying to figure out how to meet in the middle – which generally speaking is great – but there are some issues where you have to pick a side.”