A City Council committee advanced legislation Tuesday that would ban the use of chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants by San Antonio police under all circumstances.
The five-member Public Safety Committee’s 4-1 vote means City Council will discuss the bans at a meeting, likely next month, and could vote soon afterward.
The City attorney and police chief said total bans could endanger the lives of police officers, pointing out that there are already sufficient policies in place to restrict the practices. But Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), who called for the bans in June, said she doesn’t want exceptions.
“We are asking for a complete ban … so that we do not get to another hashtag,” she said, noting that too many Black people have become victims of police violence.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) voted against the measure, citing the lack of evidence that all-out bans on these practices would protect the public or police officers.
The San Antonio Police Department’s current policy restricts the use of chokeholds to incidents in which a police officer or another person is at risk of serious bodily injury or death. It’s a measure of last resort – like the use of a firearm or other deadly force.
“I don’t know of any department that doesn’t have that caveat” on chokeholds, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. Removing the tactic as an option for officers to defend themselves and others “would put that officer’s life in danger.”
“No-knock” warrants, where police use a warrant to enter a property without announcing their presence, are similarly restricted to “life or death” scenarios, McManus told the committee.
Cities across the U.S. are reevaluating police use-of-force policies in response to demands by the Black Lives Matter movement and 8 Can’t Wait campaign. A variation of the chokehold called lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR) was used by a Minneapolis police officer when he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, resulting in his death. No-knock warrants have been scrutinized following the death of Breonna Taylor after Louisville police officers stormed into her apartment unannounced, triggering a gun battle that left her dead.
The use of excessive force of any kind is explicitly prohibited in the police department’s handbook, which says “the use of any type of force is not justified in response to verbal provocation alone.” Officers are required to attempt to de-escalate situations to avoid physical confrontations. Click here to read SAPD’s use-of-force procedure.
“What we want to make sure of is that, in a life or death situation … whatever maneuver a police officer has to use to save his own life [that officer can use it and] he doesn’t face a situation where he’s violating a policy,” City Attorney Andy Segovia said.
For instance, even after a police officer uses de-escalation tactics such as talking to someone in a calm manner, that person could start to comply but then use physical force against the officer, Segovia said. “When that happens, that becomes now a death struggle,” he said. “The police officer must assume that the individual he’s wrestling with is going to take his weapon and shoot him.”
That officer is allowed to bite, gouge, or choke the person if necessary, Segovia said.
McManus revised SAPD’s use-of-force policy in 2014 to ban the use of chokeholds, strangleholds, or any other carotid restraints, including the use of LVNR, unless deadly force would be justified. Over the last 10 years, there have been 28 complaints against officers for unnecessary use of a chokehold. A review board comprising residents and police officers found all the complaints to be unfounded.
SAPD officers aren’t trained to use chokeholds or similar restraint tactics, but some officers still employ them.
Officer Michael Brewer was fired in June after he placed his knee on a suspect’s head and neck, who was “handcuffed and appeared to provide no resistance,” according to his firing documents. In this case, McManus determined that deadly force was not warranted, so Brewer was found to be in violation of the current policy. A criminal investigation and Brewer’s appeal processes are pending.
Three months after Taylor’s death in March, McManus suspended the use of no-knock warrants in San Antonio.
There were 44 no-knock arrest and search warrants issued last year and there have been a total of eight this year, McManus said. None have been issued since he discontinued them in June.
The department is working on finalizing the policy in the general SAPD manual that bans no-knock search warrants but includes an exception for arrest warrants in which “exigent circumstances pose a serious threat to the safety of the officer or members of the public,” he said.
“We will not plan to do no-knock warrants [for arrests],” McManus said, but if an officer or SWAT team encounters a situation where someone is in immediate danger, all bets are off.
“If that person is starting to injure people inside or they set the place on fire … we would make entry without knocking to protect life,” he said.
A consultant is conducting an independent review of SAPD’s policies to ensure it is keeping pace with best practices, the chief said.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) requested more details about the 28 use-of-force complaints involving chokeholds. Before making a decision on whether chokeholds should be banned outright, she said, “I think it would be prudent for the committee to review that information. … We may find that we concur in terms of the use of deadly force.”
That information will be presented to the full Council during a briefing session, City officials said.
The committee also discussed the police department’s proposed budget, which would increase by $8 million to $487 million to cover a 5 percent pay increase for officers. Policing receives the largest chunk of funding out of the City’s $1.28 billion general fund.
Austin’s City Council recently cut its police budget by one-third, by about $150 million, largely by redistributing some functions and associated funding to different departments.
City Manager Erik Walsh has proposed a more “deliberate,” months-long community engagement process and analysis of what adjustments could be made to San Antonio’s police department before making drastic changes.
Most Council members, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, seem on board with that plan, but Andrews-Sullivan has said she would like to see a hiring freeze for new officers. Sandoval said Tuesday that perhaps the $725,000 set aside for signing bonuses that new officers receive could be reallocated to the Health and Human Services Department.