San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called on City Council members Thursday to prioritize disciplinary reform for the San Antonio Police Department and balance spending on public safety ahead of police contract negotiations and budget talks.

“George Floyd’s murder while in the custody of the Minneapolis, Minnesota Police Department has ignited a wave of demonstrations across the world seeking justice, equity, and reform,” Nirenberg wrote in a memo to City of San Antonio management leadership.

“San Antonians have taken to the streets to demand change. While we have clearly heard their calls, now we must listen and act,” he wrote.

The resolution, which is still being written by the mayor’s staff and city attorney, will outline “our community’s priorities for officer disciplinary procedures and a healthier balance across our budget. This will ensure and clarify the community’s positions ahead of our next round of negotiations.”

Community feedback collected through three “listening sessions” scheduled to start next week will be used to inform the language of the resolution, a spokesman for the mayor told the Rivard Report.

The City has been engaged in a battle to change disciplinary procedures in the police union’s contract since at least 2014 when negotiations for the current contract started. Because of strict rules surrounding what behavior can be punished, what previous behavior can be considered when the chief disciplines an officer, as well as what a third-party arbitrator, can consider on appeal, more than two-thirds of officers that Police Chief William McManus fires get reinstated.

Through state law and the local collective bargaining agreement (CBA), police officers are given several advantages in the disciplinary process.
Through state law and the local collective bargaining agreement (CBA), police officers are given several advantages in the disciplinary process. Credit: Courtesy /. City of San Antonio

The memo also asks Council members who chair three Council committees to take on other platforms in the resolution.

The Public Safety Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), will tackle San Antonio’s progress on eight police department policies that Campaign Zero a nonprofit focused on research-based policy solutions – says good departments need, review SAPD’s use-of-force policies, and crowd-dispersal tactics.

The Health and Equity Committee, chaired by Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), will look into policies to promote citywide race and gender equity as well as mental health de-escalation methods.

The Intergovernmental Relations Committee, chaired by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), is tasked with “developing a robust legislative agenda that addresses public safety unions, qualified immunity, and transparency in officer personnel records.”

The latter platform may have to do with state laws that give local police forces the right to collectively bargain with city governments for their contracts (Chapter 174) and establishes an appeals process for fired cops to get their jobs back (Chapter 143).

A local group called Fix SAPD is planning to soon launch a signature petition to get repeal of at least Chapter 143. Its campaign, “End 143,” aims to dismantle the local police union with an eye toward reform.

“They see how the collective bargaining process has been abused. … It’s been arduous on all sides of this.” Nirenberg said. “It shouldn’t be this hard and I think the public is starting to clue in on that. It’s hard and it’s their money. … Chapter 143 is deserving of the scrutiny it’s getting.”

The police union contract includes an eight-year evergreen clause that keeps the terms in place. While police don’t receive base pay increases during that time, there is no legal mechanism that the City can use to force the union to negotiate.

Police win appeals because the administration is mishandling investigations, said Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, SAPD’s union. Helle could not be reached for comment Thursday, but during an interview earlier this month he said the rules outlined in the contract protect wrongfully accused officers.

It’s unclear if the protests – and the potential resolution – will impact the union’s willingness to negotiate.

“It depends upon the politics of what’s going on,” Helle said. “If we’re going to have a contract dictated by politics and not reasonable facts then I don’t really see us going anywhere.”

Such instances as the struggle to fire an officer who fed a feces sandwich to a homeless person and another who got his job back after he was fired because he told a suspect that he was being arrested because he “f—– up n—–” are a few examples critics of the contract and disciplinary procedures cite.

These conversations need to be had now and all at once, Nirenberg told reporters after Thursday’s Council meeting, because the issues are all interrelated. Formal budget talks officially start next week, and the union contract negotiations are slated for January. The current contract expires September 2021.

“It’s challenging in our city because of the crowding out that’s occured within our collective bargaining agreements,” he said. “Over 80 percent … of costs associated with the police department are locked into collective bargaining agreement.”

The city asks police to do social work, mental health care, and other activities that more qualified departments or agencies could be doing, he said. “That’s the kind of longterm, healthy balance that people are talking out when you hear phrases like ‘defund the police.’ … Let’s remember that if we don’t invest in community, if we don’t invest in people, we live through the consequences of that.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org