Several City Council members and Mayor Ron Nirenberg suggested Wednesday that they are at least open to discussing reforms that would reallocate some San Antonio Police Department funding.

More specifically, they indicated they might consider a shift in spending from the “force” part of the police force toward programs and services that address the underlying, systemic issues that cause crime in the first place. Issues discussed Wednesday included poverty, domestic violence prevention, and lack of affordable housing and mental health resources.

“I’ve heard the chief a number of times say we can’t arrest our problems away,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said, referring to Police Chief William McManus. “Yet over the years we continue to send our officers into neighborhoods with crime and we expect that crime to go down, and we’re not necessarily ensuring that that particular neighborhood or those families always have the resources that they need.”

Sandoval listed resources such as good-paying jobs and treatment center for addiction and mental health problems. “It’s almost like our health and social services are underfunded and we’re expecting the police to fill that gap. That’s setting us up for failure. … [We should be] reinvesting in organizations that may be better equipped to do some of this work.”

People shouldn’t need police officers to feel safe in on their streets, she said. “There is so much more to public safety” than police and fire departments.

“We ask officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, but if we don’t adequately fund our other systems, I do not believe that we can say that we’ve exhausted all of our other options,” she said.

That’s the crux of protesters’ calls to “defund the police” – which is typically not meant literally – that City Council heard last week during its budget adjustment discussion. Dozens of protesters, awakened by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and more than a week of peaceful demonstrations, asked for reallocation of resources.

Many of them acknowledged some police officers and detectives are still needed to investigate and prevent crime but said a vast majority of the cost to arm them and spread them out could be redirected to perform social work. Those sentiments often were repeated by the more than 90 people who sent in statements to Council for the virtual public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting.

A recording of Wednesday’s videoconference, in which City staff and McManus delivered an overview of the legal framework for the current rules surrounding police disciplinary rules and possible routes of reform, will be available online. Each Council member responded for about 10 minutes. Click here to view City staff’s presentation.

Nirenberg commended the San Antonio Police Department, which he said is ahead of the curve in many policies regarding community safety and reform.

“[But] if things were exactly how they should be, then people wouldn’t be marching in the streets,” Nirenberg said.

The City spends 64.2 percent of its discretionary funds on the union contracts for police and firefighters. That covers salaries, health care, vehicles, and other perks. Roughly 36 percent of that is for the police contract alone. There are other expenses, such as weapons and other equipment, that is outside of the contract, but City Manager Erik Walsh estimated that roughly 80 percent of what it spends on police and fire department-related expenses are regulated by the contract and not subject to Council approval.

While the City has been using an “equity lens” to address historic uneven distribution of resources for two years, there are clearly gaps in the community, Nirenberg said. “There’s got to be a long-term view for us in terms of how we budget our resources – not just to provide for public safety but to actually get to the point where we don’t need to rely on [police] and we change our calculus for how we build healthier communities.”

More formal discussion about the 2021 budget will start June 18, when Council will review a draft proposal.

“This is the first time that we’re hearing from our constituents that they don’t want to prioritize public safety,” said Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5). “If we’re serious about equity in the city, if we’re serious about addressing racism – which we say that we are – then we need to do that in the budget. … We say that the budget is a moral document. Well, now it’s time to address that moral obligation.”

Meanwhile, there’s an effort underway to repeal or change the laws that allow police to negotiate these contracts and establish a problematic appeal process for cops to be rehired after serious infractions, according to the leader of the Fix SAPD group.

The City has been trying to negotiate other rules established in the police union contract since 2014.

“I don’t think we will change the culture … or [change] how police departments were created,” Walsh said. “We can rebuild the culture, and I think that’s probably the crossroads that we’re all at. I don’t think it’s one solution. It’s not just state law, it’s not just the [union] contract, it’s not just policy changes, it’s not just training, it’s not just the Council conversation about [the] budget. It is all of those things at once. That’s the opportunity I think we have.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said they would not support removing police officers from the street – but they had differing perspectives.

“Year after year, the last three budgets … [safety and security] is right at the top” of funding priorities for residents, Perry said. “I would be hard-pressed to take any funding away from you guys [the police] to move to other programs here in the city.”

Pelaez agrees that support for programs that address the underlying causes of crime should be increased – and black communities have known that for decades – but not at the expense of an effective police force.

“I don’t think we can throw the baby out with the bathwater … nobody in San Antonio is going to dismantle SAPD. Full stop,” he said. “Nobody is going to defund them in a way that is going to result in fewer cops patrolling my district” or investigating crimes, active shooter situations, and more.

However, he added, the system is clearly flawed. “As unreasonable as I think [it is] for people to say ‘defund and dismantle,’ I think it’s equally unreasonable when I hear police officers say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing wrong’ or ‘more transparency and higher standards are going to hurt policing.'”

This conversation is being had across the country as cities look to overhaul how they fund “public safety” to include social need services. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday announced they intend to “begin the process of dismantling” the city’s police department.

San Antonio Councilwoman Melissa Havrda (D6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the Council subgroup will start its work next week with virtual and in-person “listening sessions.” All will be livestreamed at sanantonio.gov/TVSA, on the City’s Facebook page, AT&T channel 99, Grande channel 20, Spectrum channel 21, and digital antenna 16.1.  People also can listen live by calling (210) 207-5555 and entering the password 1111.

The first virtual meeting is Monday, June 15, at 5:30 p.m. The public is invited to City Council chambers (114 W. Commerce St.) at 3 p.m. Thursday, June 18, for the second session. The last meeting will be online at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 20.

“A lot of the things that I’m seeing and hearing are great, and they look good on paper, but they still do not produce the action that the community is asking for,” said Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), who is black and whose district includes the highest percentage of black residents.

“This is a public health crisis and should be called so,” she said, calling for sweeping repeals to state and local “loopholes” that allow bad cops to get on and stay on the police force.

Last week, Andrews-Sullivan proposed a resolution for the Council to vote on that symbolically would commit them to close those loopholes, among other things. That document is currently under review by the city attorney’s office, she said.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org