One week after a San Antonio police officer fatally shot an unarmed African-American man in the parking lot of a Northside apartment complex, Mayor Ivy Taylor convened a dozen of the city’s African-American and other minority civic, religious, education and neighborhood leaders at City Hall for a Thursday evening meeting.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Police Chief William McManus, Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) and Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh attended the meeting held in the Media Briefing Room, which lasted nearly two hours and included a light supper and informal conversation afterwards.
Mayor Taylor lamented the circumstances of the occasion in her brief welcoming remarks, and sought to frame the Feb. 4 shooting death of Antronie Scott, 36, by Officer John Lee as an undercover police operation that suddenly went awry with tragic consequences. Scott was under surveillance by undercover agents hoping to arrest him on two outstanding felony warrants. As he arrived at the apartment complex with his girlfriend, uniformed officers in marked police cars were called in to make the arrest.
Lee told investigators that Scott came out of his vehicle as Lee exited his patrol car, and that he suddenly spun around in his direction with something in his hand as Lee ordered him to show his hands, causing Lee to instantly open fire. Scott, it turned out, was only holding his cell phone.
Mayor Taylor expressed hope that the Feb. 4 police shooting will not be seen in the larger context of controversial police officer shootings of unarmed black men that have happened with alarming frequency in different cities and communities across the country over the last year. The mayor said she recognized that Thursday’s meeting needed to lead to continuing meetings if community trust with city officials is going to be maintained.
“I want us to think about the next steps as we move beyond this evening,” she said after nearly two hours of dialogue.
She turned to Chief McManus after her opening remarks and invited him to address the group at greater length. McManus, a 40-year veteran, returned to the job after a brief retirement in October 2015. Dressed in uniform, McManus made a lengthy, sometimes emotional presentation as community leaders, Mayor Taylor and Councilman Warrick remained seated at a large conference table and listened.
McManus spoke of five years of department initiatives to introduce improved community policing practices, U.S. Department of Justice reform recommendations, more restrictive high speed chase rules, new levels of training and policies for use of force, and adoption of body cameras now underway. There was relatively little tension in the room, given the circumstances, and afterwards, McManus received a strong vote of confidence from many of the community leaders who expressed appreciation for his return as police chief.
There was surprisingly little discussion of the actual events surrounding the Feb. 4 shooting of Scott, but when McManus did address the shooting incident and continuing investigation, he made no attempt to justify it or suggest that others in the police department or City leadership believe it was unavoidable.
After McManus spoke, several black leaders spoke passionately about life for black men and other young people of color in inner city neighborhoods where relations with police are often defined by decades of mistrust and tension. It was made very clear to City leaders Thursday night that their confidence in McManus, as well as the mayor and city manager, does not extend to the police rank and file.
“Our concern is that more black men who are not armed are getting shot, ” said Dr. Kenneth Kemp, a retired Brooke Army Medical Center physician and senior pastor at Antioch Baptist Church. “When it happens in your own back yard you get nervous. People need to know this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.”
Many of the city’s police officers, he and other leaders present Thursday noted, seem to escape serious consequences when they abuse their positions of authority. There was a palpable concern evident in the words of many of the leaders that black men in the inner city are at unreasonable risk of being singled out by police officers, and that such abuse seldom results in prosecution by the District Attorney’s office.
In that regard, several black leaders have told the Rivard Report in background conversations that they view Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, a Democrat, as unwilling as his predecessor, former District Attorney Susan Reed, a Republican, to indict police officers who are involved in fatal shootings of men of color, even when they are unarmed.
City officials acknowledged Thursday evening that the police union’s collective bargaining agreement affords individual officers significant, often frustrating levels of protection against disciplinary measures. Even when he acts to impose serious disciplinary action or even terminate an officer, McManus acknowledged, arbitration hearings often result in his actions being reversed or softened.
Several of the community leaders expressed frustration that after two years of unsuccessful efforts by the City to negotiate agreements on wage and health care benefits in a new collective bargaining agreement with the police union, there has been no discussion of holding police more accountable for their actions by limiting disciplinary protections embedded in the contract.
McManus said in a statement that the results of his department’s preliminary investigation into the Scott shooting had been turned over to LaHood’s office Thursday. The Express-News reported that LaHood released a statement later Thursday evening that suggested there will be no timely resolution of the case.
“In a minority community, because of our history, there is a history of mistrust,” said Taj Matthews, the grandson of civil rights leader Rev. Claude Black, as he sat next to Mayor Taylor and spoke directly to her.
Councilman Warrick asked McManus if he could guarantee that there wouldn’t be any further mistaken shootings.
“Our city, our community, can’t afford another shooting,” Warrick said.
“I go to bed every night hoping it won’t happen,” McManus said. “We are on the same page in this room, believe me.”
“We’d like you to sleep better,” Warrick said.
Mike Lowe, a community activist with a group called SATX4, sat on Mayor Taylor’s other side, and said the police chief’s presentation of department reforms and training initiatives did not address police culture issues in minority communities.
“This community wants justice,” Lowe said. “This idea of procedural justice sounds good, but the practice of it is not what the officer in multiple cases represented. To me, this is rhetoric. Families are dehumanized. The media have a field day. Unfortunately or fortunately, I am militant on this.”
Lowe said black men pay a price never paid by police officers.
“(Officer) Lee gets to come to work tomorrow, he’s safe,” Lowe said. “We’re hearing the rhetoric, but the community does not see justice being done. When will we see justice?”
It was a remarkable exchange as McManus responded.
“Procedural justice is the real deal. We are teaching it and it is making a difference,” McManus said. “If I could flip a switch and change the mindset of every cop in the city I would…I know what you’re talking about. I’m not cold to it. I wish to God I could say it won’t happen again.”
McManus said he and other police chiefs across the nation are trying to manage a massive cultural shift in policing, hampered by collective bargaining agreements, and that change must come, above all, to decades-long policies that have guided use of force.
“That’s where two worlds collide,” McManus said. “The world of police culture and the world of reform. This is going to take time.”
Afterwards, black leaders praised Mayor Taylor for convening the meeting and called her a “trusted friend.” They said a Feb. 25, 7 p.m. Town Hall at an Eastside church will give more members of the African-American community the opportunity to come face-to-face with Mayor Taylor and other senior city and police officials, a conversation that will inject greater transparency into the process.
In addition to City officials attending Thursday evening, attendees included:
- Taj Matthews, president and CEO of the Claude & ZerNona Black Developmental Leadership Foundation
- Clyde Foster, Jr.,
- Oliver Hill, NAACP
- Pastor Warren Beemer, Healing Place Church
- Cassandra Littlejohn, a certified life coach and former County Clerk candidate
- Artessia “Tess” House, criminal defense attorney
- Ramon Vasquez, executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions
- Dr. Kenneth Kemp, MD, Brook Army Medical Center faculty (ret.), Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church
- Frank Dunn, Farmers Insurance
- Pastor Patrick Jones, Greater Pilgrim rest Baptist Church
- Pastor Keely Petty, Program Director of Bethel Community Development Corporation
- Mike Lowe, SATX4
- Dr. Stephen Amberg, Associate Professor, UTSA’s Department of Political Science and Geography
- Dr. Sonja Lanehart, Professor and Brackenridge Endowed Chair in Literature and the Humanities, UTSA’s Department of English
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*Top image: A man bows his head in prayer during the meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.