SAPD Chief William McManus (left) speaks with Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh prior to his presentation on the cite-and-release policy.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus (left) speaks with then Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh in 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Police Department is proposing an expansion of its cite-and-release program to cover more nonviolent offenses to help reduce administrative work for officers.

The City had started discussions months ago with Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico LaHood about the City pursuing a cite-and-release policy similar to that begun by the County. With LaHood set to leave office at the end of the year, those talks have carried over to District Attorney-elect Joe Gonzales.

The City’s current cite-and-release policy covers only Class C misdemeanors, which mainly include traffic violations and often carry a fine of up to $500.

An expanded policy, if approved by the City Council, could include: Class A and Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana, Class A and B possession of a controlled substance, Class A and B graffiti, Class B criminal mischief, Class B theft of service, Class B driving without a license, and Class B contraband in a correctional facility.

Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail, and up to a $4,000 fine. Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 180 days in jail, and up to a $2,000 fine.

Briefing the City Council Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, Police Chief William McManus said these offenses are eligible for coverage under cite-and-release according to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Expanding the policy to these offenses would allow officers to spend more time on their beats than on paperwork, McManus said.

The City policy applies only to Bexar County residents, and citations would be made as long as the responding officer is satisfied with confirmation of the offender’s identification. Repeat offenders would be arrested.

The police chief said that since 2014 SAPD has made 30,626 arrests for these Class A and B offenses, which translates to nearly 46,000 total hours of officer time. During that time, SAPD has issued 70,193 citations and recorded 685 arrests for the offense of driving without a license, McManus added.

“It will save officers a ton of time if they’re able to cite and release as opposed to arrest, given the circumstances that dictate a cite-and-release program,” McManus said.

But, McManus added, police officers must be able to determine whether an arrest is necessary in each of these instances, depending on the situation.

“Officer discretion is paramount to me, in moving this [policy] forward,” McManus said.

The plan now is for police officials to meet with Gonzales in December to flesh out details of the policy, then return to the public safety committee before Christmas. The committee would send a formal recommendation to the full Council.

Following the meeting, Gonzales told the Rivard Report he backs expanding cite-and-release, which had been an issue during his successful campaign for the district attorney’s office. “I want to do my part to get this off the ground,” he said.

Gonzales said expanding cite-and-release has many benefits, including preventing many first-time offenders from spending time in jail.

“Taxpayers also benefit because this gives officers more time to be on the streets,” he said.

Expanding cite-and-release, or at least advancing the conversation, has support from Committee Chair Cruz Shaw (D2). As an attorney, Shaw said he has seen a disproportionate number of low-income and other vulnerable people jailed for non-violent offenses and unable to make bond because of financial or other reasons.

As a result, Shaw added, those individuals’ livelihoods are threatened by the inability to get out of jail quickly and by having little choice than to plead guilty.

“We need to stop disenfranchising people who cannot afford to get out of jail,” Shaw said. “It’s more of a class issue than anything else. This allows people who have minor possession, minor graffiti, theft of service – it gives them the ability to stay out of jail, to work, take care of family, go to school, and continue with their lives, hoping to take a better route.”

Shaw said a cite-and-release policy covering more nonviolent offenses would provide “a fair platform for people who get in trouble.”

Shaw’s sentiment was shared by some of the 20 attending residents, many of them members of SA Stands, a coalition of local grassroots organizations. Representatives said expanding the policy would decrease the county jail population and help to keep potentially damaging arrests off the books for many people.

Attorney Alicia Perez said expanding the policy would improve police officers’ efficiency, and encourage a better relationship between law enforcement and the public, particularly vulnerable communities.

“Citation for noncriminal offenses makes sense for everyone in making their lives more efficient, taking care of their business quicker, and making them more responsible to the system without their lives being disrupted by being stuck in jail for days,” Perez said.

Luke Amphlett, a Burbank High School teacher and a representative of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, said arresting nonviolent offenders is counterproductive and a waste of resources.

“It alienates communities and fails to reduce recidivism or to reduce crime,” Amphlett said.

Committee members John Courage (D9) and Ana Sandoval (D7) both expressed general support for expanding cite-and-release. Committee member Clayton Perry (D10) said he could possibly support the new policy, but expressed concern about an absence of data demonstrating that simply citing more nonviolent offenses would reduce crime or lower the risk of repeat offenses.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10)
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“We don’t have data to show, one way or another, that this is working or not working, whether it’s improving the system or saving us money,” Perry said. “Our taxpayers out there expect their tax dollars going into providing them safety and security. I have deep reservations about supporting this.”

Perry said he was concerned about some of the proposed eligible offenses for inclusion in a new policy, particularly “crimes involving another person’s property or livelihood” such as theft of service.

“I’m concerned that if we let would-be perpetrators know that a dine-and-dash at a restaurant or shoplifting clothes results in only a ticket, businesses may become more at risk of experiencing these types of incidents,” Perry stated in a press release issued after the meeting.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.