john branch police mayor community relations

Mayor Ivy Taylor, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and San Antonio Police Chief William McManus were wrong to hold the first meeting of the Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations behind closed doors.

By all accounts, what transpired at Sam Houston High School at Wednesday’s meeting of the 35-member council – which included a professional facilitator, 26 members drawn from the community, police union representatives, and top officials – seemed fairly predictable. Participants went around the room introducing themselves, sharing life experiences, present-day concerns and, depending on the individual, their belief on whether the council will lead to real change or not.

Still, members of the public and the media should have been there to independently assess the mood of the room, and to measure how directly participants addressed the very real issues dividing the police union and district attorney’s office on one side, and the black community on the other side.

Mayor Taylor’s decision to close the council’s first meeting on the advice of the facilitator violated, at the very least, the spirit of the state’s open meetings act. The mayor has said she intends to open future meetings to the public and media, but that commitment ignores the fact it is not up to her or a for-hire facilitator to decide if meetings should be open or closed.

To her credit, Mayor Taylor, San Antonio’s first black mayor, does not minimize the problem we face in San Antonio. Relations between the police and black community have been frayed and marked by distrust for decades.

Mayor Taylor, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Allen Bernard West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Republican congressman from Florida, appeared on a Saturday panel titled “The State of Black America” at the Texas Tribune Festival held on the UT-Austin campus. The author and cultural critic Touré served as moderator.

Mayor Ivy Taylor participating in a Texas Tribune Festival panel on race relations Saturday in Austin. Photo by Robert Rivard.
Mayor Ivy Taylor participating in a Texas Tribune Festival panel on race relations Saturday in Austin. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Responding to others remarking on recent events in Charlotte, Mayor Taylor said, “We have had some incidents that have not resulted in the kind of events we have seen on the news. However, there are a number of our citizens who do not have confidence in our police officers.”

She recalled a time when her young daughter Morgan came into the kitchen with her iPad displaying a video of a black man being fatally shot by police and asked why such incidents continue to occur. There was no easy answer to the question, the mayor said.

“I have to say, it’s time for everyone to know these things that have been going on for years,” Mayor Taylor said. “This is something we have been dealing with for decades, but now modern technology allows everyone to see what is happening.”

The advent of smart phones, Atlanta Mayor Reed agreed, means a national, predominantly white audience now sees evidence of what black people have long experienced.

You don’t have to be a member of San Antonio’s black community to know how high the level of distrust of police is in the city. In separate incidents in 2014 and 2016, black men were fatally shot, one by an off-duty SAPD officer working security at a fast food franchise, and the other by an SAPD officer who said he mistook a cell phone in the victim’s upraised hands for a handgun. No charges were brought in either case, and neither led to significant disciplinary action against the officers.

Many people, not just black citizens, believe the police here and in other cities operate with near impunity in such incidents as long as officers claim they feared for their lives or those around them.

Add the local incidents to the wave of police shootings of unarmed black men in other U.S. cities and you have a population that is understandably on edge. Whether the minority communities in San Antonio can find common ground with the police on the street remains to be seen, and the only way to judge that is to open the meetings to the public and media.

Mayor Taylor, among many others, would like to see police union members held more accountable. The union’s collective bargaining agreement includes protections that make it difficult, at times impossible, for Chief McManus to hold accountable those officers who violate department policies or fail to uphold standards. His efforts to take such action led to a recent no-confidence vote by the union, and led McManus to reverse course on punishment of the officer.

I believe Mayor Taylor shut out the public and media because an honest exchange of views will show just how wide the credibility gap is between police and minority representatives.

As I write this column, police in Charlotte have enforced a 12-6 a.m. curfew in an effort to curtail demonstrations, property damage, and any further loss of life. The fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a black resident, last Tuesday and the refusal until Saturday of police officials to release a video of the incident left observers unable to determine if Scott had a handgun, as police claim, or was unarmed as his wife and others claim. What does seem clear is that the situation called for intervention by trained mental health workers rather than police with drawn weapons.

That shooting and the subsequent standoff over the video left already frayed relations between Charlotte police and minority residents badly damaged, especially after the release of a video made by the victim’s wife where she pleads repeatedly with police not to shoot her husband.

Charlotte, like San Antonio, is a happening regional city with big city ambitions. It will be some time before the damage to its image can be measured, but the damage inside the city’s black community is certain to be long-lasting.

Interestingly, the protests have been smaller and more muted in Tulsa, where police did release a video after a white female officer, Betty Jo Shelby, 42, fatally shot Terence Crutcher, 40, an unarmed black man who seemed mentally confused as he walked away from her with his hands up. Shelby has been charged with first degree manslaughter. The fact that she was charged and the video was released seems to have acted as a deterrent to community unrest.

There’s more to it in Tulsa, the scene of the worst race riot in U.S. history in 1921 when white citizens went on a rampage, openly massacring 300 black people, injuring hundreds more. Tulsa’s white police force jailed thousands of blacks in the wake of the white rioting. It’s one of the most shameful episodes in the history of U.S. race relations. You won’t find it in most public school history textbooks.

It wasn’t until 2001 that Tulsa formed a commission to come to terms with the 1921 mass murders of black citizens by white citizens. You can read more by visiting or reading about Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation.

In both of last week’s shootings, police seemed to be dealing with individuals who lacked the mental balance to follow orders, yet neither appeared to be a threat to police. Why police didn’t summon help is unknown. With better training, they might have done so.

It’s also time for police to reconsider training that new police officers receive to always shoot to kill by aiming directly at body mass, the space above the waist and below the neck. That might be recommended to taking down an armed individual, but it’s not necessary with an unarmed individual who simply fails to understand or respond appropriately to police commands.

Why do police pump multiple bullets into people and then proceed to handcuff them as they lie on the ground dying, as it occurred in Charlotte? Why not call for emergency medical service and make an honest effort to render first aid? A shot to an extremity would be disabling and allow the officer to stop short of taking a life.

McManus has said significant reforms are being implemented to train next generation officers at the San Antonio Police Academy. That includes “de-escalation” training, a process that calls for the officer to seek ways to avert violent confrontations with civilians.

San Antonio, like many cities, recently embarked on a multi-million dollar program of purchasing body cameras for police. Will videos of police-civilian confrontations, including shootings, be made public in a timely fashion?

That didn’t happen when Bexar County sheriff’s deputies Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez responded to an Aug. 28, 2015 domestic violence call and fatally shot Gilbert Flores on his front lawn as he appeared to be holding his hands over his head.

A citizen video of the incident, shot at a distance, was widely disseminated. A second video taken from a closer vantage point was withheld from the media until four months and released in December 2015 after a grand jury decided not to indict the two deputies.

As the city’s first black mayor, Mayor Taylor has to walk a fine line, demonstrating the political will to hold police officers accountable and improve police-black community relations in the inner city, while also avoiding damaging confrontations with the police union’s leadership.

Can San Antonio’s police and its black citizens work together to reduce the distrust and start the process of building better relations? The only way to know is for the process to occur in public view.

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the second video of Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies fatally shooting Gilbert Flores was not released. It was finally released four months after the shooting, and can be viewed by clicking on the link. 

Top image ©John Branch for the Rivard Report, 2016

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.