Public comments collected by the City of San Antonio show a deep divide among residents on whether to “defund” the local police department.

The City of San Antonio collected 343 comments, submitted online and in person, about public safety and the police department from the community in June. An analysis found that 97 asked for the City to reallocate at least some of the police’s budget to enhance other services and 94 asked for the police department budget to be maintained.

Although only a tiny fraction of San Antonio residents submitted comments, the results demonstrate the strong but mixed messages being sent to City Council members as they shape the City’s next budget.

The feedback was collected to inform a Council resolution that would set the City’s priorities for police reform, including changes to disciplinary rules in the next labor contract with the police union, the way San Antonio addresses public safety in its budget, and efforts to increase transparency in policing. The resolution, which would not be legally binding, was tabled in June after Black Lives Matter activists decried a lack of public engagement. The revised resolution is expected to receive a vote next week.

The results of the community engagement effort were presented to Council as it met Wednesday to review the San Antonio Police Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget. Under the proposal, funding for police would increase by $8 million to $487 million to cover a 5 percent pay increase for officers.

“This is the lowest increase [of police funding] in the last five years in both dollars and percentage,” said City Manager Erik Walsh. The proposed 2021 police budget is 1.7 percent more than the 2020 budget, which was 5 percent more than in 2019.

Officer overtime pay was reduced by $3.4 million and some SAPD staff were moved to the Metropolitan Health District and Office of Innovation. That nearly $5 million was not enough to offset the pay increase for officers of nearly $12 million that is mandated by the union contract.

After more than two months of protests, activists seeking to “defund the police” said the proposed budget was a “slap in the face.”

Mike Helle, head of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said in a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg that the $487 million budget was in line with “current department needs,” especially while operating during a pandemic.

“We ask that you listen to your constituents and not the few, loud voices who are the principal critics of San Antonio Police Officers and public safety in general,” Helle wrote in the letter dated Wednesday. “Our members, and the majority of San Antonians, believe that it would be a mistake for you or any member of this City Council to take any action on the police budget, such as redirecting funds, that would be seen as ‘defunding police.'”

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) suggested that the City ask the police union to forgo or take a reduced raise next year, given the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

“That possibility is always out there,” Walsh said.

Most Council members agreed that the City should rethink what role police officers play in public safety and whether other support services and departments could participate in efforts to reduce crime. Some hinted at changes they would make in next year’s budget, but none went so far as to propose changes Wednesday. Council’s vote on the budget is scheduled for Sept. 17, after several more discussions on other areas of the $2.9 billion City budget.

The latest Bexar Facts/KSAT/San Antonio Report poll of Bexar County voters shows broad support for improving police accountability. Sixty-eight percent agreed that the police union has been a barrier to holding local police officers accountable for misconduct.

At the same time, 82 percent said they felt safer when they see police officers in their neighborhoods.

“There is an opinion that not every call [to 911] or situation requires an encounter with police,” Walsh said. “Others believe they do.”

SAPD receives about 2.2 million 911 and nonemergency calls for service every year, according to the department.

It’s possible that so-called “quality of life” calls such as those for barking dogs, abandoned vehicles, panhandling, loud music, or even a mental health disturbance could be forwarded to another department or handled differently internally, SAPD Chief William McManus said.

“We’re going to study those [calls] closely to see how we can possibly lay out a different way that the police department handles those calls,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is it that we’re responding to all of these calls, taking up so much of an officer’s time, when a badge and gun may not be needed?'”

But a lot of calls, especially emergency calls involving violent crime or domestic abuse, will still require a uniformed police officer, McManus said.

Violent crime is up locally 11.6 percent in 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019, according to SAPD. While property crimes are down 14.2 percent, homicides have increased 22.7 percent.

This graphic compares the number of property and violent crimes in San Antonio between January and July during 2019 and 2020.
This graphic compares the number of property and violent crimes in San Antonio between January and July during 2019 and 2020. Credit: Courtesy /. City of San Antonio

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) said he would be especially wary of reducing the police department’s budget when violent crime is on the rise.

Walsh has proposed, and Nirenberg supports, a months-long community engagement process and analysis of what adjustments could be made to the police department before making drastic changes.

“We need to think through what type of encounters we want to put police officers in,” Walsh said.

These budget discussions will also impact the City’s negotiations with the police union, as nearly 80 percent of what the City spends on police is mandated by the contract. That leaves $100 million up to the City, which is used for support and equipment functions such as the 911 call center ($19.5 million), technical support ($18.8 million), and fuel and vehicles ($9.6 million). Negotiations are slated to begin in January.

This graphic shows which elements of police funding are not dictated by the police union's contract with the City.
This graphic shows which elements of police funding are not dictated by the police union’s contract with the City. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The kind of meticulous review Walsh suggested isn’t fast enough to address the community’s needs on the streets today, several residents said during a separate public comment meeting Wednesday evening.

“We have been screaming but not heard,” said activist Jourdyn Jeaux Parks. She was one of about a dozen residents who called in to speak, most of whom wanted to see their “defund” demands reflected in the police budget.

Instead of making a public comment, one man attempted to play the Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come” to Council members, but the mayor said that violated the City’s comment policy. Another tried to play a portion of a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. According to the city clerk, there were 246 written comments submitted into the record – most regarding police reform.

The San Antonio Coalition for Police Accountability, an umbrella organization for several activist groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, will host a news conference Thursday at Milam Park to call for the City to “hear citizens’ demands to divest from police and redirect funds to public health, housing, and human services.”

“I caution us on taking too much time,” said Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) of any police reform process. “They [activists] want action now.”

Considerable local work and national research has been done on these issues already, Rocha Garcia said, noting the work of a 2016 Council on Police-Community Relations formed by then-Mayor Ivy Taylor after Black Lives Matter protests took place over the current police union contract.

While some activists focused on the contract and budget, others have focused their attention on repealing the local adoption of state laws (chapters 143 and 174 of Texas Local Government Code) that, among other things, allow public safety unions to negotiate their contracts in the first place. The group Fix SAPD will soon launch a petition to put their repeal on the May 2021 ballot.

One caller asked Council to “recognize that both chapters 143 and 174 were adopted by less than 2 percent of the population in San Antonio and at a time when San Antonio voters were disenfranchised” and said Council should “support the petition for a ballot measure giving eligible San Antonio voters a voice and a choice.”

Chapter 143 was adopted by San Antonio voters in 1947, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, the caller noted. Chapter 174 was adopted in 1974, before other barriers to elderly and disabled voters were knocked down.

Not all cities have adopted these state rules, and a local repeal vote can undo a city’s adoption of the rules.

The caller went on to ask that the City “develop transition strategies to be put in place should the public choose to opt out of chapters 143 and 174.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) suggested that the Council consider the petitions and the suggestions made by Fix SAPD.

Iris Dimmick

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