Activists pushing for more police accountability in San Antonio say they're stunned that some of the most basic reforms they've been asking for likely won't be included in the new police union contract that goes before City Council for approval in two weeks.
At issue are disciplinary procedures that remain unchanged in the negotiated contract that Mayor Ivy Taylor and the San Antonio Police Officers Association announced earlier this summer. Black Lives Matter activists, some of whom rallied around City Hall Wednesday ahead of council's citizens-to-be-heard session, say the city has effectively agreed to the continued government-sanctioned falsification of records. Local activist Johnathan-David Jones insists that what he and others want fixed in the police union contract amounts to the lowest of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to police reform. "And they won't even do that for us, which just goes to show you how much work we need to do," Jones told the Current outside council chambers Wednesday.
Unchanged in the police union contract that will soon go up for a vote is language that sweeps an officer's disciplinary history under the rug during an internal department review. As it stands, department officials and arbitrators hearing a case of officer misconduct can’t consider any drug- or alcohol-related violations more than 10 years old; infractions involving “intentional violence” only follow a cop for five years; and any other disciplinary action only shows up for two years. If suspended for three days or less, the department automatically changes an officer's suspension to a “written reprimand" after a couple of years.
City officials say Taylor tried but failed to get union leadership to agree to even that simple change. This week City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the Express-News editorial board the union wouldn't agree to disciplinary changes without more money (the new contract already agrees to wage increases totaling 14 percent over the next four years and a three percent bonus this year). "[T]hey wanted to be paid for any changes in the disciplinary process," she told the board, according to a story today by E-N columnist Brian Chasnoff. "Given all the factors, we couldn’t stay under the policy direction, which was keep public-safety spending under 66 percent (of the general fund), and pay for that as well.”
When we spoke to her last week, Taylor insisted that while she wants the disciplinary language changed, she doesn't think it's worth blowing up an agreement with the union over it. After discussions with union leadership, she told us, "we realized there was not a path forward right now on this." Taylor also cited attacks on police officers this summer in Dallas and Louisiana as another reason fixing the disciplinary language in the local union contract is a nonstarter right now. By agreeing on a contract and ending two-plus years of legal wrangling between the city and union, Taylor says she hopes to make San Antonio "an example of what it looks like when police and the community are working together."
Activists who gathered at City Hall Wednesday certainly don't see the contract as an example of police-community unity, which isn't all that surprising when the head of the local police union compares them to anarchists and the Ku Klux Klan. As SAPOA president Mike Helle told Texas Public Radio earlier this month: "There’s always a group that’s out there that doesn’t like authority. In the '80s, they were anarchists. Back in the '70s and '60s, it was the Ku Klux Klan. Now, we have a new group manifesting themselves: Black Lives Matter."
Jones says he understands the city is eager to end contract negotiations with the police union, but argues that tweaking the disciplinary language should be viewed as just one minor step on the road to larger reforms needed at the San Antonio Police Department. "If this is what they think could kill their deal, that says a lot to me," Jones told us.
For now, the big question is whether anyone else on council is willing to press the issue before the contract goes up for approval on September 1. While publicly sparring with the police union seems like an obvious political hazard heading into an election year, Southside Councilman Rey Saldaña has already stepped up as perhaps the loudest voice of opposition to the contract, which he says he cannot support without reforms to the department's disciplinary policy. In an op-ed to the E-N this week, he wrote, "We should all be angry when an officer steps outside his or her authority, but we should do something with that anger and direct it to changing bad policies that hide misconduct and discipline records."