It seems hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a fax or email from local civil-rights attorney James Myart: An off-duty police officer has beaten a woman at a community pool. Cops have tasered a developmentally disabled young man. There are virtually no blacks in positions of power in the City’s legal and law-enforcement systems.
To Myart, who recently settled a case against the City for the wrongful shooting of Joseph Fennell, it all adds up to a system of corruption and entrenched abuse of power, a theme he elaborated on at a recent City Council meeting.
How did it go at Council `September 6`?
Actually it went fairly well. I will tell you that the Mayor, two City Council people, and my own City Council person would not even appear, would not even show up at “citizens to be heard.”
So they weren’t there for `your` presentation?
Because they knew that you were going to be there?
You had sent out your press release ahead of time.
Well, actually, it wasn’t a press release and I really didn’t intend it as such. I was just letting the press know that I was going to make a formal presentation, but I specifically gave it to `District 2 Councilwoman` Sheila `McNeil` and `City Attorney` Michael Bernard. She knew I was going to do it; the Mayor knew I was going to do it; they all knew I was going to do it; and they chose not to be there.
For folks who weren’t at City Council, or who didn’t see the broadcast on television, could you recap briefly what you told the Council?
Well, first of all I expressed my dismay that the Mayor and my own City Council person would choose to take a break during “Citizens to be Heard” rather than listening to citizens. I think that’s an absolute outrage and an embarrassment, particularly on such a significant issue.
However, what I did do is I made a recommendation based on the obvious news reports and the editorial from the Express-News, and the comments from the Current, that now is probably the time to commission an independent review of the San Antonio Police Department’s use of force, with a clearly empirical statistical analysis by race and sex and age of all of the use-of-force forms that are required to be completed by a police officer when force is used. The San Antonio Police Officers Association and `City Manager` Sheryl Sculley are absolutely adamantly opposed to such a thing and in my view they are opposed because they’re afraid of what it’s gonna show.
In a perfect world, who would conduct that review, what sorts of people would be on the panel?
The City would put out bids to study groups that are organized across the country to perform such empirical studies. It’s then a truly independent study where those persons through that contract and by ordinance would be given access to the public records and the private records of the police department. And the police officers association and the City Manager and the police chief are doing everything in their power to resist that.
There’s now `an online` petition that’s being circulated that is asking for a federal investigation into the police department.
I have not seen that. That surprises me. Let me tell you, I met with the feds two weeks ago in Washington and asked them to send a complete group of investigators and lawyers down here, because the San Antonio Police Department is corrupt.
What sort of response did you get?
Well, you know the Feds. They neither deny nor admit that they’re gonna do anything. But I will verify to you that an ongoing investigation is present, not only into the City of San Antonio, but also on `District Attorney` Susan Reed and her refusal to prosecute these police officers in collusion with City Hall and City Management.
Let’s talk a little bit about the recent settlement with the young man who had been shot in the head and survived. You also had mentioned earlier this new case that’s been filed on behalf of some female plaintiffs who were searched without cause at a nightclub. One of the things you’ve said to me is that even when there are settlements, that doesn’t solve the problem because there’s also this culture of silence.
Let me explain that to you. In `the August 31` San Antonio Express-News was the article that basically told the story of the settlement itself — $80,000 to `Joseph` Fennell. Well, that was settlement of Mr. Fennell’s civil claims for injury against the City of San Antonio and the police officer.
However, in that same article, Michael Bernard says that the shooting was unjustified. The mayor said the shooting was unjustified and that the young man was doing nothing, just minding his own business. But in the same article it further said that the police officer was not disciplined. That is institutionally incoherent and incorrect — that’s an inconsistency. How can the shooting be unjustified and the police officer be placed right back on the streets with a gun and not disciplined?
In a way, are civil suits partly responsible for a sense in the public’s mind that, oh, this has been addressed, but then it doesn’t really address the underlying problem?
Actually, to even be better put, you have three systems at work when there’s a shooting: you have the state prosecutor, which is Susan Reed, you have an internal investigation administratively by the police department, then you also have an Internal Affairs investigation by the police department. Those are three separate and distinct tracks. Then, if the plaintiff wants to do something, he files a claim. That’s four separate tracks. The plaintiff’s claim only deals with his civil matter. The other three deal with the conduct of the officers. In this case, the Internal Affairs found the shooting was justified, the `administrative` investigation found the shooting was justified, and the DA took the case to the Grand Jury without even asking Fennell to testify, and the Grand Jury no-billed the police officer, which means they considered the shooting justified. That’s where I have the problem, because those three systems are run by all the same people: Susan Reed and Bill McManus.
Something you and I have also talked about is Bill McManus. He was brought in to a certain extent to address some of these kinds of concerns. Do you feel like he is a partner in this, like he wants to improve ...
Bill McManus’s tenure as the Chief of Police of San Antonio has been an abject failure. He has run a high-class, high-falutin’ PR machine. There is no substance to Bill McManus.
Not only that, he has been given a honeymoon. Do you know that I have been to City Council five or six times just in the last three months; I have not seen him in one City Council meeting.
What do you plan to do moving forward? You say you see a pattern of misconduct and a pattern of the powers that be sweeping stuff under the rug.
I plan to be an advocate for my clients as a civil-rights lawyer. I plan to be an activist and an outspoken one as a citizen of the city of San Antonio. Let me share something with you: somebody asked me one time, James, why do you take on these cases and why do you expose the City officials? You know you’re making the city look bad — that’s what somebody asked me. And I said, let me tell you something, I was born and raised in this city, on the East Side. I live on the East Side, I work on the East Side, but I’m a San Antonian through and through. And it is preceisly because I’m a San Antonian that I expose these matters, particularly when you have people in power who come to believe that they are the power and not the people. Let’s not boast ourselves as an all-American city and have these dirty outrageious covered-up corrupt secrets. It’s like a boil that needs to be lanced. You lance a boil and you medicate it till it’s healed. And if I have to be the one considered to be holding the scalpel, I’ll gladly accept that.