Is the era of bad cops in San Antonio using arbitration to handcuff the police chief and keep their jobs finally coming to an end? In particular, will Black and Mexican American citizens feel safer and less fearful of encounters with the police?

Those are questions that only time and experience will answer. All parties will have to wait until April or later, when the 2,300 members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, the police union, vote to approve or reject the proposed new contract agreed upon Wednesday by city and union negotiators.

And then the contract goes to City Council, where some members undoubtedly will wonder if the agreement adequately addresses issues that gripped this city and the nation with the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and continue today.

There is little doubt in my mind that the deal will be approved by both sides. For the rank-and-file, union officials have delivered big-time: San Antonio police, already earning as much or more than their peers in every Texas city except Austin, will enjoy a 2% bonus once the deal is sealed and then 15% in total pay increases over the life of the five-year contract.

On the other side of the table, city negotiators quietly but firmly stuck to their guns and won hard-earned changes to disciplinary measures that subverted authority in the department year after year.

For the majority of union members who conduct themselves professionally on and off the job, the new disciplinary measures that reduce the power of third-party arbitrators and give new authority to Police Chief William McManus and his leadership team should not be a significant issue. No one enjoys firing or disciplining fellow police officers, but when it needs to happen, it should happen swiftly and with finality.

Department morale should improve with the new contract. I’ve had any number of officers tell me they know there are individuals on the force who have no business wearing a badge or carrying a gun, and that arbitration practices have allowed them to escape termination even after episodes marked by blatant racism, violence and other unprofessional behavior. But they’ve also told me the culture here and in police departments everywhere prevents good cops from openly speaking out about bad cops.

The real test of the new contract will not come with its ratification. The real test will come when McManus is confronted with an officer whose unprofessional conduct merits termination. Will the process happen as city negotiators envision? I’m an optimist.

You don’t have to be a close follower of the news to see the night-and-day difference between this contract negotiation and the last one, which dragged on for two years and was marked by an aggressive union campaign attacking then-City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

Critics of Sculley and former union President Mike Helle will point to the good faith both sides brought to the negotiating table this time, encouraged by new leadership at city hall and the police union.

I’d point to other reasons. Sculley had the temerity to challenge the police and fire unions and runaway health care costs that eventually would have proved unsustainable for the city. Hers was the first real challenge to the unions in decades, and Sculley soon found herself on the front lines alone. Mayor Julián Castro departed midterm for a Cabinet job in the Obama administration, and his replacement, Mayor Ivy Taylor, undercut Sculley and city negotiators by intervening with a more union-friendly deal.

In other words, the kind of negotiation that has just been completed under City Manager Erik Walsh, with Deputy City Manager María Villagómez leading the negotiating team, could not have happened had Sculley not taken on the unions the last time around.

There is good reason to believe this new contract marks a new era in another way and that is a cessation of hostilities between the union and city hall. For those of us who have long sought disciplinary reforms but have always rejected the “defund the police” movement, our hope now is that police understand the need to regain public trust and the importance of never losing it again.

The people they encounter every day in their police work are the ones paying for their excellent wages and benefits.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.