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SPRIESTER SESSIONS: Police reform with SAPD Chief William McManus

STEVE SPRIESTER: Welcome to this edition of Spriester’s Sessions. I’m Steve Spriester very happy to be joined today by San Antonio Police Chief William McManus in what we hope will be a monthly segment here on Spriester’s Sessions. We’re going to talk about policing and how it seems to be evolving, changing. You just got back from Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice examining how they do this. The President examining some changes. What would you say to people out there wondering what kind of changes they’re talking about?

CHIEF WILLIAM McMANUS: Well, it is evolving, you’re right. There’s a national discussion that’s going on based on or prompted by incidents that have occurred involving police and citizens over the last two to three years. That discussion is all about, mostly about, reengineering use of force.

SPRIESTER: When you talk about specifically reengineering use of force – rethinking the way the training goes into it, rethinking some of the policies. Would that be accurate to say?

McMANUS: That would be accurate. You know, it’s primarily based around or centered around de-escalation. De-escalation to include creating space/distance between the officer and the person they’re dealing with. Dealing with crisis intervention training so that we’re better able to engage mentally ill people on the street. When the worlds of police and the mentally ill collide, it’s usually not a good outcome. The more we have our officers trained, the better they’re trained, the better they’ll be able to deal with those situations.

SPRIESTER: You talk specifically about the de-escalation and about the way that is handled from a police standpoint. I mean, retreating is not part of police lingo right now.

McMANUS: No, it is not.

SPRIESTER: Explain that. Explain how that’s changed.

McMANUS: Well, the Code of Criminal Procedure – the CCP – for the state of Texas has a statue in there that says that police officers have no duty to retreat. We are looking to add to that by talking about or training on tactical – tactical repositioning, creating distance, creating space between the officer and someone, say, with an edged weapon.

SPRIESTER: Let’s say I’m mentally ill. You get called out on a call. I’ve got a knife, but I’m really not a threat other than the fact that I’ve got a knife. I take one step towards you. What happens under current policy?

McMANUS: Well, under the way things are done most times – again, officers do not have the duty to retreat. So an officer in many cases is going to resort to the use of a firearm.

SPRIESTER: And that would be deadly?

McMANUS: Yes.

SPRIESTER: The goal is not to have as many deadly confrontations.

McMANUS: Exactly. Exactly.

SPRIESTER: You had a saying for it –

McMANUS: Lawful but awful.

SPRIESTER: Yeah. It’s justified.

McMANUS: Awful but lawful.

SPRIESTER: Yeah. It’s justified, but can’t be necessarily – I mean it’s justified, but maybe it’s not the right thing to do. Is that the way you’d put it?

McMANUS: I would say justified, but possibly there are other ways – there could be other outcomes. But, we train around the CCP that says that officers don’t have a duty to retreat. We train around that. Now we do some de-escalation. You know, officers have done that in the past. We have amped up or ramped up our de-escalation training, but we are looking to do it in a much more formal way across the board. We’re also looking at (how) SAPD has been on this reform wagon long before it became a national discussion. In 2008, we had the Police Executive Research Forum come in and review our use of force, our use of force training, our use of force investigations, our citizen complaint process and our disciplinary process. Two years later, we had a company called Matrix come in. They reviewed our department on a much wider scope. They came up with recommendations – they each did. We formed committees to review them. The reviews came up to the chief’s office for consideration and we wound up implementing the majority, the vast majority of all of those recommendations. Following that, we changed our pursuit policy. Our pursuit policy in the past, before the change, if you ran a red light, say, we were going to catch you. Come heck or high water, we were going to catch you. You were either going to run out of gas (or) you were going to crash, you were going to bail out and run, or we were going to catch you. Today, after the policy change, we will only pursue for violent offenses. Prior to the policy change, we averaged 111 chases per year. After the change, we averaged 33. So, that was done to make it safer for the officer and the citizens. The balancing act was risk versus need to apprehend.

SPRIESTER: So, I mean, that’s an example of how, maybe for lack of a better word, SAPD is ahead of the curve. Also, in the way you deal with the mentally ill has changed. I know you’ve received accolades from Bexar County Health Department, Center for Mental Illness on the way police officers now handle mentally ill suspects.

McMANUS: We actually received a national award back a few years ago for actually implementing – requiring crisis intervention training or CIT for all of our officers on the department. You can’t graduate the academy now without having a 40 hour block of mental health training. If you graduated the academy before that requirement was put into effect, you had to be recycled through that training. So, I think it’s safe to say that pretty near, everyone on the San Antonio Police Department has been trained in crisis intervention and that comes in handy when you’re dealing with mentally ill folks on the street.

SPRIESTER: When you see things like the shooting that was captured in Chicago, the shooting that was captured in the Bexar County Sheriffs – as a police officer and as a chief of a large department, does it make you wince? Does it make you worry? I mean, what are these incidents that have led up to the Department of Justice task force and things like that? What’s your reaction when you see some of these things?

McMANUS: I think that, well number one, you wouldn’t want to be the chief in that position. Dealing with those situations are difficult. I think that every –we watched when I was in Washington, we watched a number of these films from across the country, these videos and I think it’s safe to say that pretty near every chief in the room winced when he or she saw it. That’s why we’re involved in the middle of this discussion right now.

SPRIESTER: Talk about community policing. I’ve noticed before at things that I’ve been to and things that I’ve seen that we have video on you take a very hands on approach when it comes to community concerns. Is that fair to say?

McMANUS: That’s fair to say.

SPRIESTER: Why? Explain to me your thinking and when you go to the east side and they’re complaining about not having a big enough police presence. I’ve seen you go to kids that were just in a traumatic situation to make sure they’re okay.

McMANUS: Well, for a couple of reasons. Number one, because I want to be involved. I care about those things. And number two, it sets the tone in the department. It shows the community that the tone is being set. If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? So it’s got to start at the top.

SPRIESTER: What can San Antonio police – what can the San Antonio Police Department do better that it’s not doing right now?

McMANUS: We can add to our training. We’re going to add to our training. We’re going to examine these recommendations that have come out of this reengineering use of force seminar last Friday. We’re going to examine those very, very carefully. We’re going to examine some other documents that have recommendations in them from other departments. We’re going to examine them very, very carefully. And we’re going to implement this, this - add to our training curriculum very, very strategically. We want -- we’re not trying to jam this down people’s throats. We want people to understand it, to accept it. In order for that to happen, we’ve got to present it in the right way.

SPRIESTER: Final question: What is your message to the average San Antonian out there seeing all these changes, all these rules and the changes that you want to have implemented? What is your message to the average San Antonian?

McMANUS: I would say that we are a progressive police department in terms of what’s need to be done for change. Our standards for change are based on Department of Justice standards. National best practices as we want to implement are based on DOJ standards. We will continue, there is no finish line here either. Once we have done this, we will continue to evaluate and continue looking forward.

SPRIESTER: That’s all the questions I have. Chief, I appreciate your time. That’s going to wrap up this edition of Spriester’s Sessions.