San Antonio Police Chief William McManus and newly elected San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz held an unusual joint press conference on Monday, what Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick termed a “rare show of political solidarity between the law enforcement organization and its members’ union.”

It isn’t every day you see the police chief and police union president standing together, declaring the start of a new era. For the sake of everyone in the city, especially people of color, let’s hope meaningful change is on the horizon.

Do not count on it. There’s a reason the leaders of the Fix SAPD movement delivered 20,000 petition signatures to City Hall on Friday, seeking to put police reform on the City election ballot in May. They have no faith that coming contract talks between the City and union will lead to fundamental reform.

The press conference was significant for what McManus and Diaz did not say and because the new union president used the occasion to launch an ad hominem attack on Fix SAPD.

What I wanted to hear McManus say would go something like this: “We know there are some officers on the force who were fired for unacceptable conduct, officers who do not deserve to wear a badge or carry a firearm, who won their jobs back through a highly politicized arbitration process. We pledge to deliver the people of this city a new contract that ends the tradition of the the union protecting bad cops.”

Diaz should have added: “None of us want individuals psychologically unsuited to law enforcement work to win a place on the force, and when it happens, we support the right of the department leadership to fire those officers. The vast majority of our officers perform their duties, sometimes at great personal risk, without abusing their authority. There is no place on the force or in the union for individuals who cannot uphold that standard.”

Trust me: That’s not what was said before the gathered press corps. Instead, reporters were abruptly informed the press conference was over and their many questions would not be entertained.

San Antonio does have a serious policing problem, even if the vast majority of its uniformed officers are good people who live up to their oath. For years, bad cops who should have never made it on to the force and who have subsequently been fired for criminal or thuggish conduct have won back their jobs.

Pray that you don’t encounter one on the wrong night in the wrong place.

Dimmick and fellow Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons did excellent work in July and August giving readers detailed accounts of incidents of police misconduct in San Antonio. Their reporting showed that, on average, once a year a bad cop fired for unacceptable behavior wins reinstatement. One bad cop is one too many if you happen to be a Black or Latino person at the wrong end of an encounter with one of them.

I’m pessimistic about the City’s negotiating team winning real reform at the negotiating table. In my 30-plus years as a journalist in San Antonio, I cannot recall a single police union leader condemning an officer’s misconduct and calling for his termination. Mayor Ron Nirenberg made an unequivocal commitment at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer to win significant reform. Delivering on that commitment could prove to be the biggest challenge of his four years in office as mayor.

As polls clearly show, the mood in San Antonio and across the country has changed, thanks largely to the Black Lives Matter movement, which attracted broad-based participation and support in 2020. It is time for City leaders and police union leadership to recognize this significant social and political change and work together to deliver real reform.

From left: Fix SAPD leaders Ojiyoma Martin and Ananda Tomas navigate West Commerce Street to deliver 20,000 petitions to the San Antonio city clerk. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Diaz used the press conference to demonize Fix SAPD leaders as aiming to defund the police in San Antonio. That is simply untrue. What organizers hope to do is get an initiative on the May ballot that would repeal San Antonio’s adoption of Chapters 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code.

The chapters detail stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers, as well as the collective bargaining rights that empower Texas police unions. If repealed, uniformed police could essentially have the same limited labor rights as the City’s 9,000-plus civilian employees. “Support police accountability,” Fix SAPD’s slogan, expresses a smarter, more moderate message than “defund the police.”

Government by petition is the choice of last resort for citizens to make themselves heard in a democracy. One way or the other, citizens deserve a police force that does not strike fear in the hearts of people of color. What San Antonio does not need is another feel-good press conference.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.