With an important City election on the near horizon that includes the Fix SAPD ballot initiative seeking to end collective bargaining, San Antonio’s police union should end its decades-long battle to block the police chief, with the help of a citizens advisory board, from firing bad cops.
That is the overriding sticking point preventing an agreement between City and union negotiators before the May 1 City election. Union President John “Danny” Diaz has said he would like to reach an agreement before the election, but that is very unlikely. I previously urged both sides to reach an agreement before the election, but early voting starts on April 19, a little more than three weeks from now.
Can anything less than a citywide vote lead to real police disciplinary reform? At this stage, the answer appears to be no. That is all the more reason to vote in a local election that typically sees less than 15% of registered voters show up.
There are about 2,500 San Antonio police officers. Very few will ever face termination for abuse of power. Most honor their oath, uphold the law, and manage to do very challenging, often dangerous work without infringing on the rights of citizens or committing unjustified acts of violence or repression. We take their service for granted.
Only 10 of the more than 70 officers San Antonio Police Chief William McManus fired in the last decade successfully won their jobs back through the arbitration process that City negotiators insist must change. Despite their misconduct, some of it either appalling or frightening, all won back their jobs with unwavering union support. I do not know of a single incident where union officials came out publicly in support of an officer’s termination for misconduct.
If Fix SAPD had the funds to mount a campaign focused on the individual bad cops and the behaviors that cost them the jobs they won back, I am confident the ballot initiative would pass overwhelmingly. Unfortunately, they can’t match the union’s war chest.
Fix SAPD is a grassroots movement, led by smart young idealists with little political experience whose efforts grew out of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. They know the present system protects cops who engage in racist behavior on the job and put people of color, particularly Black people, at much higher risk than white citizens.
Organizers do not have the $500,000 or more an effective citywide campaign would require, so they can’t effectively counter the union’s disinformation campaign that Fix SAPD is code for defunding the police. That’s a message targeting San Antonio’s white suburban voters. It’s a scare tactic.
There are “defund the police” efforts in other cities, but that’s not the issue in San Antonio, where the police union fears losing its right to collective bargaining, a right not enjoyed by police unions in other major Texas cities. Police in those cities seem to fare quite well without it.
Responsible leaders in all other lines of work have the authority to deal with the occasional bad employee in the workforce. Why should third-party arbitrators with no association with department operations or management have the last word on disciplinary cases?
If the past is any guide to the future, the police chief and his leadership team will only encounter occasional cases where a bad cop needs to be kicked off the force. To the union’s credit, it’s agreed to give up its previous right to cover up past major incidents of bad behavior more than 180 days old. That will enable the chief to better discipline serial abusers.
I encourage readers to read 2020 reporting by Senior Reporters Brendan Gibbons and Iris Dimmick that explores how bad cops won back their jobs through arbitration after being fired. Matthew Luckhurst, the SAPD officer who served up a “feces sandwich” to a homeless individual, initially won back his job. After similarly targeting a female police officer, he was finally fired for good, but his conduct and the union’s defense of him brought San Antonio the kind of national media attention it can do without.
The choice for voters looms: Do we want to live and work in a city where such individuals are on the streets with a badge and a firearm, or should we become a city that no longer empowers the union to protect bad cops?
The City, meanwhile, should take a serious look at its recruitment and hiring practices. More rigorous and effective screening should prevent individuals with psychological profiles that make them unfit for public service from winning a place on the force in the first place.