Updated: Read the finalized draft of the proposed agreement, which shows new language in blue text and removed language in red strike-throughs.

Officials in San Antonio are cautiously optimistic that police union members and City Council will approve a five-year, $92 million labor contract.

The rank-and-file members of the San Antonio Police Officers Association are expected to vote on the deal in April, with City Council considering the deal in May.

With the five-year deal agreed to March 2, the city has achieved most of its stated goals related to the disciplinary process for officers accused of misconduct while keeping public safety spending, which includes the fire department, below 66% of the city’s general fund.

“I think this tentative agreement rebalances the disciplinary process,” said Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, the city’s lead negotiator. “It gives that deference to the chief in terms of making the decision on discipline and it also provides due process to our police officers.”

Some of the city’s biggest wins were narrowing the authority a third-party arbitrator has to overturn the police chief’s decision to fire an officer, having an officer’s entire record be considered when punishment for misconduct is determined, and changing a statute of limitation rule.

“We believe that the process has stayed true to give the employee a chance to [share] their side of the story and to also try to rebut anything,” said Christopher Lutton, lead negotiator for the union. “So I believe it still gives the employee a recourse if they believe that something has been done wrongly.”

Officers will enjoy slightly larger wage increases over the next five years than the previous five-year contract that expired in September 2021. The increase would make local police officers among the highest-paid in the state, second to Austin, a city spokeswoman said.

The negotiation process took just over one year, during which the union fought off an attempt to strip the police union of its ability to collectively bargain in the same way it has for decades. In May, San Antonio voters narrowly rejected that proposition, which police reform activists worked to get on the ballot following the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Some speculate that the proposition may have pressured the police union to give some ground on disciplinary issues, but union officials said after the proposition’s defeat that the measure’s failure had no impact on the union’s negotiation strategy.

Ananda Tomas, founder of police reform group ACT 4 SA, disagreed.

“This contract has more accountability and tougher discipline for bad officers than we have ever had before and that’s directly because of the pressure the community has put on both [the union] and [the city] over the past two years,” Tomas said. “Had the community not highlighted the specific disciplinary barriers … nor run the Prop B ballot initiative to challenge the overarching political hold that the police union holds over our city, many of these reforms likely would have never been included in negotiations to begin with.” 

Tomas said ACT 4 SA will urge City Council to vote against the contract, pointing out the deal’s failure to implement an independent civilian review board. The group also will lobby to reduce the evergreen clause, which allows the contract to stay in place for eight years after expiration, and reduce the length of the contract.

“Both the City Council and the union must consider the tentative agreement as negotiated and written,” Villagómez said. “Any changes to the tentative agreement would have to be renegotiated by both parties.”

Contracts tied to reforms

San Antonio is in line with many cities across the country in taking a closer look at its police union contracts, said Daniel DiSalvo, professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York-CUNY and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

“In the post-Floyd world, there’s been kind of two waves: the first wave was a [state] legislative response,” DiSalvo said. “Then there’s been … an effort to revisit police contracts with a keener eye to these disciplinary issues and empowering management.”

Those deals give management — in San Antonio’s contract, that means the police chief — more discretion, and officers are compensated with higher pay, DiSalvo said. “That’s the basic trade-off.”

In the case of arbitration, a key element in the proposal is that the chief decides what misconduct is “detrimental” to the department, DiSalvo said. “That’s the lever on which the discretion of the chief hinges.”

Under the narrower jurisdiction of the arbitrator, the city can better appeal rulings made in arbitration to municipal court to prevent officers deemed detrimental to the force from gaining reinstatement, city officials have said. Under the current system, an arbitrator has more leeway to overturn the chief’s decisions for any reason.

But it’s important for the system to have a strong appeals process for officers who feel they’ve been wrongly accused or punished too heavily, DiSalvo said.

Most officers don’t find themselves, or expect to find themselves, entangled with disciplinary procedures, he said. “There’s a broad middle of good officers for whom this probably is never going to come up.”

City Manager Erik Walsh (left) speaks with San Antonio Police Chief William McManus during budget discussions in 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Taking back ‘the entire store’

At least 10 police officers have had their firings reduced to suspensions through these rules in the last decade, including an officer who threatened to choke his girlfriend, another who gave a feces sandwich to a homeless person and another who used a racial slur on a man in custody.

During more than two years of on-again, off-again negotiations that led to the current police contract, City Council dropped disciplinary reform a priority in favor of reducing the cost of the union’s health care plan. That deal saved the city millions but kicked the disciplinary can down the road.

Union members overwhelmingly approved the current contract in 2016. Former Councilman Rey Saldaña and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, then representing District 8, were the only council members to vote against the contract despite significant community protests calling for stronger reform.

While the proposed contract significantly improves police accountability, Tomas said, further reform “is still needed.”

“In the 1980s we basically gave SAPOA the entire store — from exorbitant health care costs, to weak civilian oversight, a slew of disciplinary barriers, a ridiculously long evergreen clause, and more — and we have been fighting to get that back shelf by shelf ever since,” she said.

Former City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who oversaw negotiations on the previous two contracts, sees the proposed deal as benefiting both the city and the police union.

“In my opinion, it represents progress toward the goals we set out to achieve in 2014, to correct the stranglehold the police union has had on the city for 30 years,” she said.

Changes in leadership

Both the city and police union underwent leadership changes ahead of contract talks, which likely propelled their success. Sculley retired in 2019 after 14 years and police Detective Mike Helle, the union president for 12 years, retired last year.

Sculley and Helle were bitter political rivals as she led the charge to reduce health care costs for the city. Before 2016, neither police, firefighters nor their dependents paid health insurance premiums.

Erik Walsh, then a deputy city manager, was promoted to succeed Sculley. When the union elected John “Danny” Diaz as its new president, Police Chief William McManus welcomed Diaz as a “breath of fresh air.” Soon after, Diaz told the San Antonio Report that he expected to have a better relationship with the city.

The relationship yielded a deal that took about half the negotiation time of the current labor pact.

Here is a look at the deal’s major provisions:

Wages

  • Within 30 days of City Council’s approval of the contract, each officer will receive a payment equivalent to 2% of their total compensation during 2021.
  • In April 2023 and 2024, each member will receive a 3.5% wage increase.
  • In April 2025 and 2026, each member will receive a 4% wage increase
    • This means a total of 15% in base pay increases (which compound year over year).
    • The last five-year contract included 14% in base pay increases and a 3% lump sum.
  • Other pay increases that are part of officer tenure and promotions are still not tied to performance evaluations. The city had hoped to establish a promotion process that includes officers’ annual evaluations and consideration of officers’ past performance.
  • The new contract removes a clause that had obligated the city to give police officers the same pay increases as firefighters, should their separate contract include higher pay.
  • The city’s previous wage proposal was 1% less than what was agreed to on last week, but the union requested an extra .5% for the last two years of the contract. In exchange, it agreed to forgo any retention funding as part of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation. That $10 million will be used for non-uniformed employees compensation and retention.

Disciplinary processes

  • An arbitrator can’t reduce a firing to a suspension unless the police chief fails to show that the misconduct represents a “substantial shortcoming,” meaning the violation interferes with the officer’s ability to effectively serve in the police department or that community expectations would not support them being rehired.
    • The police chief determines what behavior is detrimental to the police department.
  • An officer’s entire record can be now considered in misconduct cases. Under the 2016 contract, there are restrictions on how far back the chief and arbitrator can look.
  • Officers can be punished for misconduct within 180 days after the police chief is aware — or should have been aware — of it, rather than 180 days after the misconduct occurred. However, officers still cannot be punished for any misconduct two years after it occurred. This rule is nearly identical to the one in the fire union’s contract.

Internal interview procedure

  • Officers will no longer be allowed to take home questions (“interrogatories”) from Internal Affairs regarding misconduct investigations.
  • The city wanted to limit the evidence that officers accused of misconduct can review before being questioned. The proposed language prohibits officers only from viewing statements from other officers involved in the incident who are also accused of misconduct. This does not include witnessing officers.
  • Officers will be given 24 hours notice (down from 48 hours) ahead of an interview with Internal Affairs.
  • Officers can be questioned for a total of eight hours instead of six.

Other terms

  • Increased training hours from 80 to 120 per year.
  • Cadet applicants living in San Antonio get residency points increased from 1 to 5, an attempt to encourage officers to live within city limits. Currently, 52% of uniform employees live within the city of San Antonio.
  • Police chief has discretion to approve or deny leave based on department needs.
  • Officers leaving SAPD would have the option to set up a deferred compensation account instead of taking a lump-sum payout for their accrued leave (holiday, sick leave, vacation, etc.)
  • Employees can take 240 hours of consecutive leave upon separation; under the current contract, it’s 480 hours.
  • An evergreen clause keeps most of the terms of the current contract active for eight years after the contract expires or until a new deal is reached. During that time, however, base pay raises for union members stop and they continue to pay increased health insurance premiums each year.

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