Police officer Joe Correa aids in keeping Fiesta Fiesta secure and safe.
The City of San Antonio will collect responses to thousands of surveys designed to gauge residents' opinions on the role that police officers play in public safety. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

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The City of San Antonio will collect responses to thousands of surveys designed to gauge residents’ opinions on the role that police officers play in public safety.

The citywide community engagement effort will start with the survey, but also will include dozens of virtual public meetings throughout the spring, Deputy City Manager Maria Villagómez told City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Friday.

The goal is to “determine potential police services that could have an alternative response,” Villagómez said, such as engaging nonprofit partners to intervene in situations involving homelessness, mental health, or domestic violence to augment or replace police involvement.

The survey asks respondents 18 questions, such as how safe they feel in their neighborhood, how often they interact with the police, and whether police officers should be involved in various scenarios.

For instance, if the situation involves “mental health issues not involving a weapon,” an “unknown vehicle and/or person loitering,” or “parking violations” respondents can select what level of responsibility they think police should have in a particular situation.

Click here to read a summary presentation, which includes a draft of the survey.

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, coupled with lingering bitterness over local officer-involved shootings, fueled protests last summer that called for the City to “defund” the police. City Manager Erik Walsh and City Council then initiated a five-step plan to review how police respond to various scenarios and come up with policy recommendations and funding mechanisms.

San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus has since adjusted some policies that address some concerns regarding police tactics in certain scenarios.

Instead of officers approaching someone who may be mentally ill, McManus is directing officers to contact the person who called the police or anyone else who can give the responding officer more context for the situation. The order also allows officers time to contact the SAPD Mental Health Unit, Crisis Intervention Team, social workers outside the department, or other resources. 

The survey and additional community input is expected to produce a report that City Council can use during its 2022 budget considerations this summer.

“[The survey is] designed to understand what resident expectations of police encounters with the San Antonio Police Department [are] and the appropriate role of the police department to keep the community safe,” said Chris Tatham, CEO of the ETC Institute, which was hired by the City to conduct the survey.

The survey will act as a baseline of residents’ opinions, but the community meetings – ranging from large events to one-on-one conversations with activists and other stakeholders – will provide qualitative information to City officials as they develop policy, Villagómez said. “The first step in this process is the scientific community survey,” she said.

The survey will be mailed to at least 500 random addresses in each City Council district, Tatham said. Residents can complete the survey online, by mail, or by calling a toll-free phone number. It will be available in Spanish or other languages as needed, and other accommodations can be made for people with disabilities, he said.

Officials hope to get slightly more than 1,000 responses reflecting the city’s demographic makeup. That sample size puts the margin of error at 3%, Tatham said.

The results will be finalized in a written report, but ETC Institute will also create an online dashboard that allows the public to view the results with accompanying charts, graphs, and maps.

“The primary purpose of the survey is to be able to give us a pulse on what the community thinks about [911] calls that could potentially be addressed by a non-police officer or maybe the police department has a different role than what they have today,” Villagómez. But other questions – such as how safe residents feel in their neighborhood – could be used to improve department operations and “see if there’s a gap we haven’t considered” in certain neighborhoods.

Each City Council district will host at least one meeting, in which council members and City staff will discuss the survey and collect feedback from residents, said Laura Elizabeth Mayes, assistant director of the Government and Public Affairs department.

Also planned are four citywide events, with access to computers at City libraries for residents who want to participate in the videoconference, in English and Spanish. Another two “telephone town halls” are slated for residents to call in and participate in live polls.

One-on-one sessions will be scheduled with leaders of social justice and advocacy organizations, police reform groups, the Black community, LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, seniors, youth, veterans, business community, people with disabilities, and faith-based organizations, City officials said.

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, was concerned that the original two-month proposed timeline for neighborhood meetings and citywide community conversations was too short to properly engage residents.

Havrda joined members Clayton Perry (D10) and Ana Sandoval (D7) in calling for each district to have more than one meeting

“I’m not sure one meeting is enough,” Havrda said.

Villagómez said the meeting timeline can be slightly extended but any further delay could mean the final report will not be done in time to be considered in the 2022 budget process.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) abstained from voting on the public engagement process after sharing her concerns over the delay.

“We have been talking about the change and alternatives when it comes to police and their roles for almost a year now,” Viagran said. “We can have more than one meeting per month in a council district.”

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