Labor negotiations between the local police union and the City of San Antonio became heated on Friday when the topic of disciplinary action entered the fray.
Discussing the San Antonio Police Department’s arbitration process, the two sides remained deadlocked after hours of arguments. Central to the conflict during Friday’s collective bargaining hearing – the third meeting in a labor contract negotiation expected to take months – was the amount of authority given to the arbitrator to overturn or change a punishment issued to officers for disciplinary issues.
The current arbitration process allows an independent professional to review disciplinary cases and, in some instances, reverse decisions the police chief made. The union’s current contract expires in September.
Between 2010 and 2020, police officials fired 71 officers, according to information released by SAPD and the Fourth Court of Appeals in July 2020. Of those, 10 returned to the force by way of arbitration.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association suggested a wording change in the contract that would allow the arbitrator to lessen the police chief’s disciplinary action “only if the disciplinary action is not consistent with comparative disciplinary actions issued by the chief against other similarly situated officers.”
For the first 20 minutes of the meeting, Liz Provencio, lead attorney for the City’s negotiating team, argued that the issue lies with the arbitrator’s ability to substitute his or her judgment in place of the chief’s judgment based on past examples.
Provencio used five examples to illustrate when officers who had committed rule violations were allowed to return to the SAPD because the case arbitrator saw that other officers had gotten less severe punishments than termination for similar acts of misconduct.
“It perpetuates a bad precedent and doesn’t provide what the community’s expectations are,” she said. “We reject your proposal, and we reassert our proposal.”
Union attorney Ron DeLord argued San Antonio’s current arbitration process is similar to a hearing examiner system present in many other Texas cities. DeLord accused Provencio of making a “political statement” and added that allowing an arbitrator to have a say over the chief’s decision on a punishment helps keep the department consistent, as well as excludes political factors from a case’s ruling.
The system allows the officer who is appealing his or her termination to “have this period of which someone is going to listen to their case without all the noise,” DeLord said.
The arbitrator acts as a neutral third party who looks at the overall evidence of a case, said Chris Lutton, who chairs the union’s contract negotiation committee.
The chief often has political pressure to do what a community wants him to do rather than looking at an officer’s case on evidence alone. Every officer has the right to a fair judgment, DeLord said.
Maria Villagómez, deputy city manager and lead negotiator, said the City is not suggesting to remove due process. It is trying to address issues that have happened in San Antonio. Although just 10 officers have been reinstated over the course of 10 years, the City would like to see a contract that does not allow reinstatement of officers who “do not reflect, in our opinion,” the “high standards” of the SAPD, Villagómez said.
Following a short break, Lutton asked City negotiators what they would like to see in cases where the evidence or lack of evidence shows the chief made an unfair decision to terminate an officer.
“The employee is reinstated back into his position,” Villagómez said.
“That answers my question,” Lutton said.
DeLord rejected the City’s proposal, and the two groups tabled discussions on disciplinary issues to talk about other disagreements within the contract. They will return to the negotiating table next week.