In response to both a national Black Lives Matter movement and unprecedented local demonstrations, the San Antonio City Council held a work session meeting on June 10 to discuss the current San Antonio Police Officers Association contract and opportunities for police accountability reform. Two weeks later, Council proposed and discussed a nonbinding resolution to begin asserting priorities in negotiating a new police contract to replace the current one, which is set to expire next year.
While the mayor and Council have begun moving in the right direction, it isn’t unreasonable or unprecedented for our community to expect more from our elected officials during this historic moment. In fact, we don’t have to look back very far to find examples of our city elected officials taking the lead on big challenges in our community.
In early 2018, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff teamed up to promote a multimodal public transportation system to help alleviate traffic congestion and address poverty and equity. They created ConnectSA and appointed current and former elected officials, including former Mayor Henry Cisneros and former Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, to help chair and organize support for this campaign. If it weren’t for the current pandemic and economic strain that came with it, they would have launched a citywide campaign by now.
After the firefighters union collected ballot initiative petitions for three proposed amendments to the city’s charter in 2018, Nirenberg helped organize and lead a campaign to prevent those charter amendments from passing. At the time we were warned that passing these amendments would make it too easy for citizens to put issues on a ballot and reverse council decisions; create a salary cap for future city managers, making it difficult to recruit top talent; and give the fire union more leverage in contract negotiations, which would put our city’s financial bond rating at risk. The mayor, along with a supermajority of the then-serving council members, participated in the Go Vote No campaign, which raised over $1.3 million and included appearances from elected officials in commercials urging citizens to vote against the proposed charter amendments.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in San Antonio, Nirenberg and Wolff tapped City Council members, county commissioners, and community leaders to form five COVID-19 working groups to address the threat facing our community. Soon after, the mayor and county judge recruited health experts and business professionals to draft documents to guide elected officials in opening our community back up safely.
After a month of daily Black Lives Matter demonstrations in San Antonio, City Council’s response to demands for public safety reform and police accountability has been to hold a Council meeting, three public safety listening sessions, and propose a mostly symbolic resolution. This response from local elected officials so far has resembled business as usual instead of the all-hands-on-deck, rapid responses they have shown with other matters.
At the June 10 Council meeting, city staff gave presentations on Texas Local Government Code Chapter 143, which dictates processes for disciplining officers and keeping records of misconduct, and Chapter 174, which allows for a police association to negotiate a contract with the city. These government code chapters were approved by San Antonio voters decades ago, and can be revoked by voters if placed back on the ballot through a petition signature process.
Chapters 143 and 174 provide the foundation for the current police contract, which expires next year, but contains an evergreen clause. That clause gives the San Antonio Police Officers Association the option to keep their current contract for an additional eight years after it expires, no matter what new reforms City Council passes. Keeping that contract would continue to allow the problems that currently prevent our city and police chief from holding bad police officers accountable.
Revoking those chapters will require our community to gather tens of thousands of petition signatures and mount a massive public education campaign. These efforts are guaranteed to be strongly opposed by the police union. It is an uphill battle that is currently being led by local grassroots movements.
Will grassroots organizers be left to fight this battle on their own? Will people living paycheck to paycheck during a pandemic have to raise the money for this campaign? Will some of our most vulnerable be left to perform the on-the-ground work of petition signature drives and getting out the vote, further exposing them and their families to the risks that this escalating pandemic poses? Or will our elected officials step up to do some of the heavy lifting, and show us, by leading in a campaign to revoke Chapters 143 and 174, that we are all in this together?