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It has been an eventful two weeks.
Aug. 5: City Council is informed it faces $120 million in lost revenue over the next two years but responds favorably to a proposed budget that adds $8 million to its police department’s funding for next year. Black Lives Matter and other activists who had called to “defund the police” in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd respond angrily that day and at a press conference Aug. 13. Some called the jump in the “bloated police budget” “a slap in the face.”
Aug. 6: San Antonio Police Department officer Humberto Zuniga Jr. is charged with sexual assault. His girlfriend said he forced himself on her over her objections, causing her to grab a knife and cut his bicep. He told detectives they didn’t have sex that night, but the detectives noticed the cut on his bicep. Zuniga, 41, was suspended in 2015 for reportedly threatening a former girlfriend that if she didn’t drop a lawsuit against him he would send sex videos of her to her family and friends.
Aug. 8: A San Antonio Express-News analysis shows homicides in the city are up 34 percent from last year, echoing a Wall Street Journal article that found the city’s increase was the fourth highest in the nation.
Aug. 13: Police Chief William McManus announces that he has asked the FBI and the district attorney to investigate four officers accused of using excessive force. McManus had fired two for allegedly beating a man severely who ran from a traffic stop and for busting into a house without a warrant in pursuit of the man. The other two were allegedly involved in an incident in which they used a taser on a man and then one officer placed his knee on the man’s neck after he was handcuffed. All four are appealing their firings.
Then, of course, there is the daily crime blotter, the burglaries, the robberies, the assaults, the rapes, the murders, the drunk-driving homicides. And a bloody weekend with a teenager shot and a gun battle at a flea market.
This brief and far-from-comprehensive list tells us two things. One is that we need police reform. The other is that we need police.
We also need patience, sustained pressure on City Hall, and skilled leadership there and in the public arena. The task is daunting. If reforming a police department was easy, we’d have a number of model cities we could look to. I agree that San Antonio’s department needs considerable work, but as I look around Texas I don’t see a big-city department I would trade for.
The task of reforming the police is complicated by the fact that we can’t get the police we want by making the police the enemy. The police force I want would be an elite cadre of professional, well-trained men and women who will see themselves as peace keepers, not warriors. We won’t get that force by declaring war on them.
If we can get such a force, it will be by paying them well, giving them extraordinary training, and forging a new culture in which the good officers help eject the bad ones.
An old friend of mine once proposed a new way for staffing the police department. He suggested that we run a massive advertising campaign seeking recruits. Once we have built a large list of would-be applicants we fire the current police force – and recruit a new one by drafting citizens who didn’t apply.
I told then-Chief Al Philippus about the idea. He laughed and said, “There’s some truth to that.”
Only some truth. Many apply to be public servants. Some apply for the gun and the power. Some are overtly racist. I don’t know how many, but it was disturbing three years ago when all 23 police escorts, including six supervisors, for presidential candidate Donald Trump donned “Make America Great Again” hats for a photo with him. It would have been wrong with any candidate, but was especially disturbing with a candidate and now president who encourages police violence and has a long history of racist tropes.
There is no room for racism among police officers. The George Floyd killing has helped much of white America comprehend how big a problem it is. Here in San Antonio an arbitrator recently reinstated the firing of an officer who had angrily inflicted the “N” word on a black man in his custody. His excuse was that he was under a lot of pressure. Anger and pressure might have brought out any of a dictionary full of obscenities. The use of a racial epithet reveals a whole category of hatred.
Because of the police union’s contract, arbitrators may well reinstate some of the officers McManus has fired recently. This will be one of the issues regarding police discipline that the City will take up in contract negotiations next year. Reforms will be very difficult to get, as was shown by how hard it was with the current contract to get the union to agree to having officers pay something toward health insurance coverage for their spouses. But without disciplinary reforms the more ambitious cultural reforms are unachievable.
The police union over a period of decades has taken San Antonio’s police from being poorly paid to among the best-paid in the region. They should be. Their jobs are inherently dangerous and require great skills. Paying them well is also an important part of letting them know we appreciate them. We don’t want to send out armed employees with martyr complexes.
But the high pay and the importance of the work also require very high standards. Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a good standard for sending people to prison. It is not a supportable standard for removing problematic employees from jobs with deadly power.
In addition to the upcoming contract negotiations, City Manager Erik Walsh says he hopes to bring broader proposals for police reform to the council by April. To do so successfully will require building strong public support, much broader than the activists. In taking on the burgeoning problem of police and fire department health insurance costs, Walsh’s predecessor, Sheryl Sculley, began by getting then-Mayor Julian Castro to appoint a broad-based task force to address the issue.
San Antonio’s activists are performing a public service by keeping the issue of police reform on the front burner. But it will require a great deal of thought, research, and public involvement to design and implement an effective recipe for getting it done.