For years, San Antonio has proudly boasted the largest march in the nation to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Although last year over 300,000 marchers converged on Pittman Sullivan Park for the event, this year’s march has been moved to a virtual platform because of COVID-19. As we reflect on the life and work of King from home this year, we must ask ourselves what we can do to honor his legacy.  What tangible action can we take to ensure King’s dream that all people “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” will come true?

San Antonio must honor this legacy not only through words but through action. The upcoming police union contract negotiations offer up a tangible opportunity for leaders to put their money where their mouth is in equitable and transparent policing.  COPS/Metro, the Baptist Minister’s Union, and Community of Churches for Social Action call on Mayor Nirenberg, City Council, and City staff to close contract loopholes that allow bad police officers to remain on the force.

The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police reignited conversations about reform across the nation, with marches and declarations of support for change from officials and corporations alike. The length of the road to justice and equity was further illuminated this month as people across the world compared the relative hands-off treatment of mostly white insurrectionist rioters who ransacked the nation’s Capitol and disrupted the constitutional election process with the brutal tactics deployed against peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors in Lafayette Square only months before. 

These injustices are not problems from far away; we have examples of police violence and mistreatment right here in San Antonio. The city took some tangible first steps toward equitable justice by completely banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants late last year, but now the groundwork for long-term police reform must take center stage.

Long a barrier to holding corrupt officers accountable, the police contract negotiated between the San Antonio Police Officers Association and the City has many protections for bad officers that the average citizen can’t imagine benefitting from in their own professions. From the 48-hour period an officer accused of misconduct has to prepare before a disciplinary interview (including viewing all evidence against him/herself), to the 180-day time limit to investigate officer wrongdoing, the current police contract is padded with over-the-top protections that prevent true organizational change and accountability. 

At minimum, the City should ensure that the revised contract:

  1. Eliminates the ability of arbitrators to return fired officers to the force against the police chief’s will. 
  2. Eliminates the provisions that allow officers 48 hours to access all evidence against them and prepare for disciplinary interviews about wrongdoing.
  3. Allows the past disciplinary records of officers to be introduced in hearings and removes the 180-day time-limit from the time of the offense to investigate wrongdoing.
  4. Is crafted with community voice. Discussions between the City and police union should be transparent, accessible to the average person, and offer opportunities for authentic public input, with particular emphasis on input from communities of color.

It may seem a far reach to label a contract negotiation as an opportunity to honor a giant like Martin Luther King Jr., or that city policy can rise to the level of social justice action. When we consider that after an extensive study researchers from Yale and the University of Pittsburgh declared that “fatal police shootings are a public health emergency“ that affects health outcomes broadly for people of color, the tedious and humble work of policymaking takes on new meaning.  

The mayor and City Council must have both the belief and tenacity to see what is sure to be an arduous negotiation with the police union through to a more just end. To change an entrenched policing culture and set a new way will not happen overnight; hearts change when words and deeds align. Let San Antonio not be yet another city that defaults on the promissory note of equity for its communities. Indeed, one need not look further than King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for a call to action:

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

COPS/Metro, the Baptist Ministers’ Union, and Community Churches for Social Action call on Mayor Nirenberg, City Council, and City staff to ensure the new police contract ensures officer accountability and that the negotiation process is both transparent and inclusive of community voice. 

Tiffany O’Neill is a leader with COPS and Metro Alliance and a member of her neighborhood parish St. Patrick Catholic Church in San Antonio’s Historic Government Hill.

Jerry William Dailey, a third-generation preacher, has been sharing the Word of God for 47 years, with the past 35 as Pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church.

Rev. Patrick J. Jones has been the pastor of the Greater Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church for the past 27 years and currently serves as president of the Baptist Ministers’ Union of San Antonio.