San Antonio grapples with reforming police discipline, budget in wake of George Floyd protests

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a majority of City Council members have said they’re open to re-examining how much the city spends on the Police Department


“If we’re starving communities of infrastructure and services and libraries and parks and nutrition programs and senior centers .. we reap what we sow,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg at last week’s City Council meeting.

San Antonio Express-News
By Joshua Fechter

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing protests over his death have forced a broad reckoning over the role of police in San Antonio — raising new questions about the city’s spending on police, officers’ use of force and the chief’s ability to keep bad officers off the streets.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and seven City Council members, an overwhelming majority, have said they’re open to re-examining how much the city spends on the Police Department.

That money could be rerouted for anti-poverty initiatives, including helping the city’s homeless, training residents for high-demand jobs or to pay for services for domestic violence victims and those suffering with mental health problems.

911 should not be the first number that we call,” for social-based problems, District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval said during Wednesday’s council meeting.

Police Chief William McManus agreed.

“The Police Department cannot resolve the systemic social and economic issues in cities across this country,” McManus told council members. “Every city that I’ve worked in — from Washington, D.C., to here — has those systemic problems.”

The reckoning already has brought about significant changes in police conduct — McManus said Wednesday that officers no longer will be able to fire projectiles unless he gives a direct order. It also has raised the possibility of still more drastic measures — Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran suggested every officer should take a lie detector test to determine whether he or she has racist tendencies.

But protesters and police critics have homed in on the city’s police spending — which takes up more than a third of the city’s entire budget.

Some council members noted the city spends a high percentage of its budget on police because that’s what residents want.

When the City Council was putting together its budget last summer, residents surveyed said they wanted more spending on public safety, along with neighborhood improvements and streets.

To that end, council members set aside $479 million for the Police Department — about 80% of which is mandated under the contract with the police union, City Manager Erik Walsh said Wednesday.

I would be hesitant at this point to say, ‘Yeah we’re looking at redirecting funds’ because people want to be safe,” District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry said. “They want to feel safe.”

The renewed focus on police misconduct also has brought new scrutiny of the police union contract, which nearly every council member said is in need of repair.

The contract — which expires next year — gives officers accused of wrongdoing too much latitude to sway the disciplinary process or win their job back if McManus fires them, several council members said.

Under the contract, police supervisors have 180 days to discover a potential case of misconduct. If they miss that window, they can’t discipline the officer involved.

If they do, officers accused of misconduct are allowed to view the evidence against them before they’re interrogated. If McManus hands down disciplinary action, officers can overturn that discipline through binding arbitration.

About two-thirds of fired San Antonio police officers get their jobs back, records show.

So far, at least two council members — Sandoval and Roberto Treviño — have said they won’t vote for a contract that doesn’t fix those issues.

McManus himself is frustrated with the setup, telling council members that state law and the police union contract “protect bad officers.”

Consequences for misconduct must be served and they must be final,” McManus said. “If they’re not, we get police officers back on the department that need to be fired.”

Some council members have lobbed up even more radical ideas.

Last weekend, a veto-proof majority of city council members in Minneapolis — where George Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes — decided to completely dismantle that city’s Police Department.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales raised the possibility of “completely transforming the Police Department,” including a shake-up among the top brass at SAPD.

She stopped short of saying the city should replace McManus, but added: “I think that we should keep all options on the table.”

District 8 Councilman Manny Peláez shot down the idea of a Minneapolis-style change to the department. “I don’t anticipate that anybody in San Antonio is going to dismantle SAPD,” Peláez said.

But, Peláez added later, “What they also want is a different kind of policing.”

Another option suggested would strip the San Antonio Police Officers Association of its power to bargain with the city for a new contract every five years. The city and the union have negotiated since 1974, when San Antonio voters gave the union the power to bargain collectively.

District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan, the council’s lone black member, suggested the issue should go back to voters for a potential repeal.

You’re telling me a system that was voted on in 1974 is what we’re still being governed under in 2020,” Andrews-Sullivan said. “We’re in a new day and age. Voters need to have their voices heard.”

Putting that matter to a vote could serve as a nuclear option if the union doesn’t play ball on giving up some of the contract’s protections for officers facing discipline.

About 20,000 residents would have to petition to put it on a ballot — an initiative soon to be undertaken by an organization called “Fix SAPD.”

But if collective bargaining was torpedoed, that could be a two-edge sword, experts say. It would give the city less flexibility in hiring, promotions and boosting diversity within the department, said Ron DeLord, a lawyer who has negotiated labor contracts for police in Texas cities including San Antonio. That’s because the city would then be bound by state law on such matters.

“All of those things would be lost and we’d have to go back and act like it’s 1973,” DeLord said.

Police union president Mike Helle could not be reached for comment.

Not all changes pitched by council members require a complete upheaval of the department.

In suggesting polygraph tests to detect racial bias, Viagran was pitching a no-tolerance policy for racism, discrimination and domestic abuse.

Police drew condemnation for firing rubber and wooden bullets on demonstrators at Alamo Plaza last week, though McManus has maintained their use was justified. Viagran noted that a 16-year-old boy protesting in Austin was in critical condition after a police officer there shot him in the head with a bean-bag round.

“The difficulty I have with that is that people are out there protesting use of force by police,” Nirenberg said. “We have to be very careful if our response to that is use of force.”

McManus said he now must personally approve the use of projectiles like wooden and rubber bullets during a demonstration.

“Hopefully, we don’t ever have to use them again,” McManus said. “But if in fact they are, then ... the instruction to use those weapons has to come from me directly.”

SAPD has made headway on policies aimed at reducing use of force, McManus told council members.

The department has adopted four policies put forth by the “8 Can’t Wait” initiative — started by Campaign Zero, a nonprofit aimed at police reform — including a ban on chokeholds and a requirement that officers intervene if they see one of their own engaged in potential excessive force.

Overall, complaints of use of force are down significantly from previous years, a fact McManus attributed to the department’s adoption of body cameras.

In 2010, the department received and investigated 64 complaints of excessive force. Last year, that number was 18 — which McManus said was an historic low.

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