The recent firing of four San Antonio police officers – including one who used a similar knee-on-neck tactic that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis – has brought policies regarding police violence and who is on the receiving end of that violence into the spotlight.

Officers Michael Brewer and Andre Vargas were fired in June and Officers Thomas Villarreal and Carlos Castro were fired in July for their handling of separate incidents. The official review process was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, a spokesman for SAPD said, but Chief William McManus made calls to fire them following Floyd’s death in May and protests that erupted across the country calling for police reform. 

On Nov. 16, 2019, Brewer and Vargas were called to a disturbance in a Southside parking lot involving Matthew Garza, his child, and the child’s mother. A witness said Garza was yelling at and following the woman and child, who eventually got into a witness’s car. Garza was in his own vehicle when police arrived. With at least one gun drawn, the officers instructed Garza to exit the vehicle. He did so but did not comply with other orders, the officers stated in SAPD’s preliminary incident report.

Vargas unnecessarily deployed his stun gun and Brewer unnecessarily used “physical violence when [he] placed his left knee on Mr. Garza’s head and neck, who was handcuffed and appeared to provide no resistance,” according to their firing documents. Police officers are not trained to kneel on the necks of suspects.

Vargas also used “profane and offensive” language and picked Garza up by his arms while handcuffed “causing him unnecessary and unwarranted pain.” Officers are trained on on how to safely lift suspects while wearing handcuffs.

Vargas and Brewer were formally fired on June 30. 

On Jan. 16, officers Villarreal and Castro pulled over a car for speeding on the East Side. The driver, Eric Wilson, parked in a driveway and disobeyed orders to stop when he walked into a house and locked the door. The officers observed the smell of marijuana coming from his car, according to the report.

Eric Wilson. Credit: Courtesy / SAPD

Vilarreal and Castro proceeded to kick in the door of the home, “without consent, without a warrant, and without exigent circumstances”; unsuccessfully deploy a stun gun; and ultimately “struck Mr. Wilson multiple times with a closed fist which resulted in severe and unnecessary bodily injury to Mr. Wilson’s face,” according to their firing documents.

They were fired on July 7.

“Excessive use of force will not be tolerated within this department,” McManus said in a statement last week. “The actions that these four officers showed on two separate incidents are indefensible and do not align with our use of force policy, de-escalation tactics, and our guiding principles. SAPD will continue to hold its officers to the highest standard of conduct and impose discipline when warranted in order to maintain the trust and confidence of our community.”

In a Friday interview, McManus said the department’s policies on use of force haven’t changed because of the George Floyd protests.

“There is a brighter light these days shining upon officers’ use of force, but the rules haven’t changed,” McManus said.

That goes for the severity of punishment too, he said. “The same decision [to fire these officers] would have been made” before Floyd’s death.

He considers the recommendations of a review board comprising both SAPD officials and residents. 

“They’re looking on a case-by-case basis, based on the facts of the case,” McManus said.

Disproportionate use of force

The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to police violence against Black residents across the U.S. It’s difficult to tell based on the currently available data whether this group faces all uses of force disproportionate to their share of the total population.

However, in Bexar County, Black residents have been disproportionately killed or injured when police use their firearms, according to police data from the Texas Office of the Attorney General.

State law requires all police departments in Texas to submit reports on all officer-involved shootings. These reports include race or ethnicity (both of the officer and the non-officer), whether the person involved used or threatened to use a weapon, and whether the incident ended in death or injury.

Neither Garza, who is Hispanic, nor Wilson, who is Black, was armed at the time of their confrontations with police. The fired officers did not fire their guns.

But out of 96 incidents when officers did use their firearms from 2015 to 2020, 19 percent involve Black residents, who make up only 8.6 percent of Bexar County’s population, according to census data.

SAPD, by far Bexar County’s largest police department, with more than 2,400 sworn officers, accounts for 72 of the 96 shooting incidents. Bexar County Sheriff’s Office deputies were involved in 13 such incidents, with Texas Department of Public Safety accounting for another four. Other agencies make up the remaining seven, including smaller police departments and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

In the vast majority of these cases – 83 of the 96 – suspects “carried, exhibited or used a deadly weapon,” according to the AG data.

“The level of force used by an officer is based on the actions of the person they are dealing with,” said SAPD Lt. Jesse Salame. “When an officer confronts an individual who has a gun, the officer is authorized to use deadly force to protect themselves from what they reasonably believe to be a threat to their lives. The introduction of the weapon is the determining factor for when the officer uses deadly force.”

The data show the outcomes of each shooting but not what led to the confrontation. Some cases involved injuries and deaths on both sides – officers and suspects or victims. Over those six years, shootings led to the deaths of two officers and injuries for 12 officers.

But in the 82 shootings that did not lead to the death or injury of an officer, Black residents made up 16 percent of those killed or injured. Latinos accounted for 60 percent, whites 22 percent, with 2 percent listed as other.

SAPD has taken steps to study the potential for racial bias within the department. During a recent City Council meeting, McManus suggested that the required yearly training on bias and other issues that uniformed officers take should be supplemented with monthly, online courses.

The agency releases an annual racial profiling report that focuses on traffic stops, as required by state regulations.

Its latest report shows that of the 139,000 SAPD traffic stops in 2019, 56 percent of drivers were Latino, 32 percent were white, 11 percent were Black, 1 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent were Native American.

SAPD’s publicly available data also includes reports that tally the number of times an officer used some form of force, whether a physical takedown, a weapon such as a stun gun or pepper spray, or a firearm. But those reports don’t break down use of force by race. They don’t say whether some groups face more chokeholds, pepper spray, or stun guns than others, for example.

In 2019, SAPD logged 529 use of force incidents, down 3.7 percent from the previous year. Use-of-force incidents were half of a recent peak in 2014, when SAPD recorded 1,189.

SAPD releases the data in annual internal affairs reports. The only specific weapon or tactic the reports highlight is the use of stun guns, which, since 2014, reached a high of 237 in 2015 and a low of 173 in 2018.

Officer appeal pending investigation

McManus has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the Garza and Wilson cases for potential civil rights violations. SAPD’s Internal Affairs Department is still investigating the two separate incidents and no criminal charges have been filed. 

“We are in regular contact with local authorities [regarding these two incidents],” FBI Special Agent Michelle Lee said in an email. “If in the course of the local investigations, information comes to light of potential federal violations, the FBI is prepared to investigate.”

Asking the FBI to review such cases isn’t common, Salame said, “but [local] instances where officers are fired due to use of force is not common either.”

Both Brewer and Vargas have initiated appeals by arbitration to the Firefighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission – a right granted to them through state law. 

Letters from their attorneys included in their firing documents state that the officers “specifically and generally, singularly and plurally, [deny] the truth of the charges and allegations against [them].”

The punishment is “clearly excessive considering all the mitigating circumstances,” state the lawyers with the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas.

The arbitration process, which can lead to fired cops keeping their jobs, won’t take place if they are convicted of criminal charges. Per state law, their license to practice law enforcement likely would be revoked.

If charges with the district attorney’s office or at the federal level are not filed, that’s when the appeal process and arbitration would kick in. Since 2012, 10 officers got their jobs back through arbitration.

“[Arbitration] will be put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal investigation,” Salame said. “It’s a holding pattern on the administrative side.”

Local organizers with Fix SAPD plan to launch petitions that could lead to a public vote in May on Chapters 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code. Repealing these laws would dismantle the local police union and arbitration process. 

McManus has said he is not opposed to the collective bargaining process, but “I do not want to leave it in the hands of an arbitrator to return someone to duty.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.

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