Editor’s note: This story is part of KSAT Defenders’ “Broken Blue” investigative series digging into misconduct and disciplinary procedure in the San Antonio Police Department. The series will culminate with a one-hour investigative special airing on Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. For more reporting on this topic, click here.
It’s a concern voiced by police chiefs, academics and activists: Do the protections that often find their way into police union agreements sometimes block the removal of problem officers and even deter reform within the department?
A number of university and private studies assert that that is exactly what happens in some jurisdictions, depending on the features of the union contract.
These types of protections may pose problems for some communities and the more of them there are in a collective bargaining agreement, the greater the likelihood that problem officers will not be disciplined, according to multiple academic studies.
San Antonio’s collective bargaining agreement includes many protections that some scholars have deemed problematic. It’s an issue common across most large cities, according to the Duke Law Journal’s 2017 publication, “Police Union Contracts.”
Some of the protections include:
Delayed interviews of accused officers
When an officer is accused of alleged wrongdoing that is not a criminal matter, Internal Affairs must give the accused officer 48-hour notice before any interview or interrogation takes place. In criminal matters, the criminal investigation starts right away — like other criminal cases — and Internal Affairs conducts a separate investigation.
Accused officers review evidence before speaking to investigators
During that 48-hour window, before they speak to investigators, officers are allowed to review all of the evidence in the investigation. This includes the complaint and other written statements, GPS readouts, video recordings, audio recordings and any other information gathered in the administrative investigation.
Brief statute of limitations
Police administrators have six months to administer any discipline against an accused officer. In criminal cases, the clock starts when the department becomes aware of the charge. In civil matters, administrators can only act within 180 days of when the incident took place.
The clause is problematic in some cases because departments may not be aware of the allegations until the statute of limitations expires.
Discipline history is not always considered
When presenting their case to arbitrators, police administrators are not allowed to introduce any evidence of acts that have occurred before the 180-day window.
Past discipline is generally only brought up if the officer is accused of violating the same rule within two years of when the punishment was assessed, however, there are a few exceptions. Prior history can be used as evidence if the allegations include "violence, substance abuse and incompetence,” according to the collective bargaining agreement.
Limited civilian oversight
The collective bargaining agreement establishes a Chief’s Advisory Action Board, which includes a deputy chief, a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant, a detective and two patrol officers.
It also establishes the Citizen Advisory Action Board, comprised of civilians picked from a list of names provided by the city manager. Both boards oversee complaints against police.
However, the boards’ recommendations on discipline are “advisory only” and non-binding.
Further, the citizen board “may not conduct a separate independent investigation" into a complaint. It can only recommend further investigation.
Costs for the city
Another feature of many union contracts that some studies and activists consider problematic is the city being on the hook to pay for certain costs following an officer’s alleged misconduct.
These can include providing officers paid leave while they under investigation, covering their legal fees, and even paying for settlement costs.
In San Antonio, the current SAPD Collective Bargaining Agreement prescribes that the city will defend any police officer, in and out of court, who lawfully carried out duties.
One other controversial feature of the San Antonio police agreement: When an officer is suspended, he can use holiday, vacation, or bonus days as compensation during that time, as long as it doesn’t exceed 45 days.
“Clearly, the current collective bargaining agreement limits the Chief’s ability to appropriately discipline officers that deserve to be disciplined. We intend to bring those issues to the next contract negotiation with the police union," said City Manager Erik Walsh in a statement to KSAT. "I am hoping the police union will agree that these cases tarnish and impact the community’s confidence in our police department. The residents of San Antonio expect better behavior from police officers than what these individuals demonstrated, and frankly, so do I. Fortunately, the conduct of these few does not reflect of the high character of the more than 2,300 other officers on the streets protecting our community today.”
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