With no high-profile candidates challenging Ron Nirenberg in his fourth and final mayoral race, a proposed charter amendment aimed at police reform looks poised to revive political battles that featured prominently in San Antonio’s recent elections.

Leaders on the left and the right were already organizing around Proposition A, also known as the Justice Charter, before the state Supreme Court decided it would be allowed on the ballot Friday, and the effort has drawn interest from three local congressmen. 

The proposed changes to the city’s charter aim to ban enforcement of low level marijuana possession and abortion laws; ban police chokeholds and no-knock warrants; expand the city’s cite-and-release program for nonviolent, low-level offenders; and create a “justice director” position within the city administration to oversee the implementation of those changes. 

Democratic U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, who championed similar marijuana reforms as an Austin councilman, visited San Antonio on Thursday to lend support to the charter amendment’s proponents. Last month Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales campaigned against the proposal outside City Council chambers, and fellow GOP member Chip Roy is using the proposition to fundraise for his 2024 reelection race. 

Should voters approve the May ballot initiative, the city’s ability to enforce its provisions remains in question, and the measure is almost guaranteed to face legal challenges.  

Even though “there’s a chance it gets overturned, look at all the money that they’re going to spend… that you’re going to spend, and I’m going to spend, to fight this,” state Rep. John Lujan (R-San Antonio) told members of the Republican Party of Bexar County Tuesday.

Lujan was among three anti-Prop A speakers who led off the party’s meeting at the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association headquarters in Northwest San Antonio.

Speaking from a dimly lit stage before roughly 200 attendees, San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz used a Powerpoint presentation to detail the union’s view of each provision. 

“Officers know that when somebody asks for cover, another brother or sister officer will come running,” he told the audience. “… I’m asking you to give us some coverage. We need for you to vote this down.”

Two nights later, Prop A supporters launched their own campaign with a backyard party at a King William home owned by the union that represents San Antonio Independent School District’s teachers and staff. String lights adorned the makeshift stage while attendees ate tacos from Maria’s Cafe and removed their shoes to take part in a Native American prayer to open the event. 

“In Austin there used to be hundreds [of marijuana arrests] every single year … overwhelmingly of working class young people,” said Casar, whose congressional district includes part of San Antonio. “Through passing a similar policy, we drove that arrest number down to zero.”

Congressman Greg Casar speaks at a Justice Charter event on Thursday.
U.S. Rep. Greg Casar (D-Austin) speaks Thursday at the Justice Charter campaign kickoff. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Casar headlined Act 4 SA’s rally, along with Planned Parenthood Texas’ new political advisor, former state Sen. Wendy Davis.

“What we’re doing is instilling hope in the community that we can build a democracy where instead of oppressing one another, we take care of one another,” Casar told the audience.

A second round

The challenge of a partisan fight in a city where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans is not lost on the charter amendment’s opponents. 

“We need to get out our friends or family, our churches, not just Republicans,” Lujan told the county Republicans. “… If we make it a Republican versus Democrat issue there’s a chance we lose, because we’ve lost elections. Let’s just be honest.”

Similarly, supporters of Prop A say they’re clear-eyed about the potential for a legal battle even if it’s approved by voters. 

Members of the state’s all-Republican Supreme Court declined to intervene in the amendment’s placement on the May ballot, while acknowledging there are “questions that the courts may resolve in an election contest or other post-election proceeding if the proposition passes.”

While some other cities in Texas such as Austin have banned enforcement of low-level marijuana possession and no-knock warrants, the abortion decriminalization measure in Prop A would be the first of its kind — and will surely face legal challenges if approved by voters. 

In the weeks to come campaigns for and against Prop A plan to make the rounds of neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce and other community groups to state their respective cases.

The Prop A fight represents a second round between local police reform activists and the police union. In 2021, voters narrowly rejected a measure that would have drastically changed the police union’s contract bargaining rights. Ananda Tomas, founder of ACT 4 SA, helped lead the campaign that collected signatures and lobbied for votes. 

Ananda Tomas, founder of ACT4SA, speaks at a Justice Charter event on Thursday.
Ananda Tomas, founder of ACT4SA, addresses people gathered Thursday at the Justice Charter campaign kickoff event. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

ACT 4 SA and Ground Game Texas crafted the Justice Charter petition and Tomas is now leading the campaign for Prop A.

Pitching Prop A

Representatives from the police union and ACT 4 SA presented their cases separately Thursday during a board meeting of the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio.

Most questions from the board highlighted concerns about how expansion of the city’s cite-and-release program could impact residents and small businesses such as Tandoor Palace Indian Restaurant, where the gathering was held. 

Law enforcement and the district attorney voluntarily implemented a cite-and-release program that allows officers to, using their discretion, issue a citation to an offender rather than make an arrest for some low-level crimes. Prop A would expand which nonviolent, low-level crimes qualify.

The ballot language lists the misdemeanor crimes for which police would issue citations but not make arrests: possession of less than 4 ounces of a controlled substance, driving without a valid license, property or service theft less than $750, graffiti with damage less than $2,500 and criminal mischief with damage under $750.

“We have a lot of members who have convenience stores,” said Elisa Chan, who founded the Alliance in 2015 and unsuccessfully ran to represent Texas House District 122 last year. She asked if Prop A would allow someone who wants to steal goods or services to “just walk out” of a store without paying — and not get arrested.

“I just don’t see how this charter amendment would promote more law — it seems like we’ll have more lawlessness in the city,” Chan said. 

Cite-and-release is already an established program, said Nokita “Six” Moore, advocacy director for ACT 4 SA. “All we’re trying to do is make sure that [citations are] the default method” of punishment. 

Moore pointed out the proposed charter amendment would not prevent police from investigating thefts. 

“There are still consequences,” Moore said, but a citation allows an offender to maintain their housing and employment — unlike jail time. 

The existing cite-and-release policy saved Bexar County $4.7 million in jail booking costs, the Bexar County district attorney’s office reported last year.

But Diaz, the police union president, told the same group the charter amendment would take away an officer’s discretion on whether to arrest a potentially violent criminal.

“We won’t be able to arrest and do our job,” Diaz said. “They’re talking about … rehabilitating criminals … but the businesses are the ones that are going to suffer.”

People who commit “petty” misdemeanor crimes who aren’t properly punished will become “braver and braver,” he said. “When you don’t address the problem at the beginning … it turns into felonies.”

Diaz said concerns about cite-and-release have dominated several conversations at community meetings that he has attended.

“I hear it throughout the city, because it’s not just going to affect businesses, it’s going to affect homeowners also,” he told reporters after the meeting.

After hearing from both sides, the Asian American Alliance board voted not to support Prop A.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.