More than 300 San Antonians have taken part in public meetings about how the City uses its police department, particularly how and whether police officers should respond to certain types of 911 calls.

The police services review process started last year will inform next year’s City budget and policies how the police department handles 911 calls. While a recent survey shows most residents approve of the work the San Antonio Police Department does and want police to be more visible it also found that certain 911 calls could be forwarded to other agencies or that police could provide backup to such agencies.

A full schedule of community meetings – there are 13 remaining, including a virtual town hall Thursday evening – and recordings from previous discussions related to the review are available here. The survey results are available here.

The goal is to find possible “alternative responses” to 911 calls, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez said Wednesday as she provided City Council with a status report on the review process.

The review includes an in-depth University of Texas at San Antonio study of more than 3 million 911 calls, which found that less than 0.5% of the calls made between January 2018 through October 2020 were classified as top priority, which includes in-progress violent and property crimes. A little more than 5% were the second-highest priority.

Most calls the police receive are considered lower-priority, such as 911 hang-up calls and reports about panhandlers, barking dogs, or abandoned vehicles.

“Some of these calls may be good candidates for a non-police response,” Villagómez said.

The City could, for instance, send someone from its Human Services department to speak with a panhandler and offer services

By using this data in partnership with survey responses, the City will identify at least two types of calls that will receive an alternative response.

More than half of the residents surveyed thought the police department should share the responsibility or serve in a backup role in responding to more than a dozen types of 911 calls. The top six types were: well-being or mental health checks that don’t involve a weapon, graffiti, parking violations, public health order enforcement, animal-related issues, and fireworks.

The review was started amid calls to “defund” the police, but City Manager Erik Walsh has stressed that the process is not specifically aimed at taking money away from the police department.

The City also is reevaluating how it handles calls involving domestic violence, homelessness, and mental health issues.

Through an agreement with the City, the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council is supporting a mental health coordination study from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. The study will identify improvements to the City of San Antonio’s first response system, aided by existing data on mental health response best practices, according to City documents.

“These system improvements will ensure that in an incident involving an individual in mental health crisis, first responders will have appropriate support to connect the individual and family members to clinical care as quickly as possible to ensure the safety and security of the individual and the community,” the documents state.

Those recommendations will also inform the City’s response to calls involving people experiencing homelessness, Villagómez said.

Council members generally supported the effort.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said his constituents have told him, “We don’t necessarily want you to police harder, we just want you to police smarter – and I think that that’s what this exercise is.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) emphasized the need to establish metrics to measure success, which Sandoval defined as fewer crime victims and repeat offenders.

She also noted that the review should help the department reduce the use of deadly force. In 2020, there were 19 people injured or killed in police shootings in San Antonio, according to SAPD.

“That is really one of the reasons we saw the protests we did last summer and why we took on this work,” Sandoval said. “People are dying or people have died at the hands of law enforcement … even one death is too many.”

Metrics that measure success – and what success will look like – will be determined after the community input is collected, Walsh said.

Police are not completely responsible for public safety and mental health issues, he added.

“I almost see it in two parts,” Walsh said. “What is the [goal] that we’re shooting for organizationally at the police department? … But then what are the strategic outcomes that are needed from a broader sense, from a community-wide sense?”

Draft recommendations will be presented to City Council committees ahead of a budget goal-setting session in June.

But this work will go beyond the City’s budget, Walsh said.

“I truly believe that, as we’ve learned more about this and understand the elements that we’re dealing with, this is something that the city should be doing periodically to continue to ensure that we’re aligned” with the community, he said.

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