San Antonio City Council will be briefed on a three-year violent crime reduction plan Wednesday including a “hot spot” initiative that sends extra officers to small geographic parts of town experiencing increased violent crime.
The council briefing comes less than a week after video was released showing five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers — who were part of a specialized “high crime hot spot” unit — savagely beating Tyre Nichols, who died in the hospital three days later.
The Memphis unit, called SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods), was launched in November 2021, and has been permanently deactivated after the release of the video footage.
Hot spot methods and specialized units are not new in policing, but are once again under a microscope, with police reform activists and victims’ family attorneys calling for more oversight.
San Antonio’s program, which began last year, appears to have some key differences from the Memphis unit. It has also included a degree of opacity about the locations of the additional officers, what exactly officers do and details about the crime reduction the department has reported in its wake.
One policing expert told the San Antonio Report that the parameters of SAPD’s program could include enough guardrails to keep residents safe from overpolicing while also reducing crime, but he recommended keeping an eye on how the program evolves.
San Antonio’s hot spot initiative is paired with a larger, phased strategy — part of a violent crime reduction plan produced by UTSA — aimed at addressing some of the underlying causes of crime in those areas with a “problem-oriented, place-based” approach, which may not always include deploying a badge and a gun.
Memphis’ hot spot unit appears to have operated more proactively than San Antonio’s.
The SCORPION unit, according to multiple media reports, was regularly engaging suspects involved in violent crime, gang- and drug-related crimes, illegal guns as well as vehicle theft, often in unmarked vehicles.
They arrested more than two thousand violent felons and confiscated hundreds of illegal guns. “Homicides and violent crime decreased in the city for the first time in four years,” according to the Washington Post.
“We didn’t want people to think we were an occupying force in the community,” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said during an address in January. “The intent was to increase visibility, give these communities some sense of a break from all of the gun violence we were experiencing. We had great success. They did good work. This group, we believe, went off the rails that night.”
The San Antonio Police Department’s hot spot initiative — it is not described as a specialized “unit” in city materials — appears to take a more passive approach, focused on increased visibility.
“Correlations between our Crime Plan … and crime efforts in other cities across the nation is difficult,” wrote SAPD Sgt. Washington Moscoso in an email. “Our plan is multi-tiered, beginning with officers sitting in patrol vehicles with the emergency lights on for a period of time as a high visibility presence in a pre-determined area based on data.”
‘Highly-visible crime deterrent’
Officers last year deployed to at least 60 hot spots, which police officials have said are approximately seven blocks in diameter and have reported at least five violent crimes in a three-month period.
Over nine months, SAPD reported an overall decrease in violent crime in those areas, which the department has not disclosed, by 52%. The department has not released arrests or charges made during hot spot activity.
“These officers are not engaging in proactive police enforcement activity, unless criminal activity occurs within their view,” Moscoso said. “They are a high visibility crime deterrent.”
It’s also unclear if the increased police presence within the hot spots led to increased violent criminal activity in other areas.
“We don’t actually know the answer to that,” Capt. Jesse Salame told the San Antonio Report in December. “That’s a criticism that some folks will have: that all we’re doing is sort of moving things around. But our argument to that is that we’re targeting … specific areas where those crimes are the highest and we’re targeting specific people because the vast majority of crime that we’re seeing is committed by a small amount of the same people.”
Gerald Reamey, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law, said that to some extent, programs that target high-crime areas can be “an instrument for playing Whack-a-Mole with crime.”
“Sometimes it works very well,” he said, “but it is a temporary fix — which no doubt is very welcomed by the residents who live in those areas. But nevertheless, you can’t keep it up indefinitely.”
The dilemma, is that, residents generally want more police presence “to protect them when they need it,” he said. “But if you’re too aggressive about what the police are doing in that area, then you’re going to have some of these bad interactions, where people wind up getting arrested without cause, get hassled and searched and stopped when they’re just going about their business.”
Hot spot programs are also typically located in high crime areas with low-income populations of color, who are already over-policed, Reamey said. “It’s hard to strike that right balance when you depend almost entirely on the good judgment of the individual officers.”
Supervision of this initiative will be key if SAPD wants to avoid the problems that have plagued some specialized police units in the U.S., he said. “The thing you always have to watch for is they can become a sort of independent, unsupervised, unguided entity, where they become a kind of law unto themselves.”
It’s unclear how on-the-ground supervision of or assignments to the hot spot initiative has worked or will be structured going forward. Police Chief William McManus, who is briefing council Wednesday, was unavailable for an interview this week.
“Maybe this is not a problem in San Antonio right now,” Reamey said. “But having a conversation about it publicly is a good way to keep us from having the problem.”
Officers who participate in the hot spot initiative should have “really clear, written guidance” on their priorities and expectations, he said. For example, if the patrol is passive, that must be made clear to officers.
Without that clarity, he said, “what they may hear is: we want you to go out there and do whatever it takes to get this stuff off of the streets and stop it. … That misinterpretation is really, really dangerous.”
The hot spot initiative is just part of the city’s new violent crime reduction plan.
In April 2022, the city contracted with UTSA to study violent crime and come up with “strategies aimed to [reduce] violent crime in the city’s most violence-prone areas and among its most violence-prone offenders with the goal of reducing aggregate levels of reported violence city-wide,” according to a city memo.
The city’s 2023 budget includes 38 new officers tasked with carrying out those recommendations, and SAPD and UTSA will review results every 60-90 days, according to the memo.
In addition to hot spot policing, the plan includes “problem-oriented, place-based policing and focused deterrence,” community engagement, and “working with other City of San Antonio departments to clean alleyways, abandoned properties, etc,” Moscoso said.
That’s problem-oriented policing, which “focuses on the problem and not the spot,” said Hans Menos, vice president of the Triage Response Team at the Center for Policing Equity, which addresses racial disparities in policing and consults with cities to redesign their public safety systems.
The center is not involved in San Antonio’s crime reduction efforts.
Hot spot patrols should lead to longer-term solutions, Menos said. For instance, if car thefts spike in the month of January in a particular area, that data point tells one piece of the story, he said.
“Then you look at it more deeply by talking to restaurant owners, community members, people who have had their car stolen and police reports,” he said. “And you can say: ‘Oh, a lot of these [thefts] are outside of restaurants, so people run in to get their food and leave the car running because it’s cold out.
By getting that level of detail about what is driving car thefts, the response doesn’t have to involve “putting a cop on that corner,” he said. It could be as simple as reminding people not to leave their cars running.
The increased police presence in hot spots will likely increase police contact with the general public, he said, “and unfortunately, increased contact often means increased loss of life … increased trauma. When we have too many contacts, we just raise the likelihood of one of them going to be as bad or worse as Tyre Nichols’ contact with law enforcement.”
That’s why skepticism of hot spot policing is warranted, he said. “Everyone’s entitled to say: ‘what’s the oversight gonna be?’ The cops can’t say ‘just trust us’ anymore. That ship has sailed.”
It’s also important to ask what governments are doing besides “sending a badge and gun” to address crime, he said, because too often “they end up killing some people [and] putting people in jail illegally.”