SAN ANTONIO – 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.
Eloy Leal says he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was a warm August night in 2015 and earlier that night there had been gunshots in his neighborhood.
So it didn’t take long for at least two San Antonio Police Department cruisers to arrive.
Leal readily admits that he’s had his problems with the law, but says he was just trying to be helpful when he pointed out some shell casings behind his brother’s truck. He says that the next thing he knew, he was handcuffed in the back of Officer Matthew Belver’s squad car.
That’s when Belver made him an offer.
The car’s rear-facing camera had no sound at first, but footage clearly shows the two men were arguing. Then the sound starts to play.
Belver: “Let's take the cuffs off. Alright?” Leal: “Yeah, let's take them off.” Belver: “Let's take the cuffs off. Alright?” Leal: “Me and you, one on one? Belver: “Sure.” Leal: “Alright.” Belver: “Absolutely.” Leal seems startled in the video, but goes along with it.
Then Belver starts removing the handcuffs, struggling to do so, as he threatens his prisoner. Belver: “As soon as they come off, I’m gonna beat your a--, that's what I'm going to do. You ready?” The video shows the restraints are eventually unlocked and removed as Belver continues: “There you go, there you go. Now you can get out” he says.
“Let’s go, run. Do something, do something.” Eloy Leal claims he then realized that the officer wasn’t kidding and the police video reflects that.
“I’m just telling you about the bullets, bro,” Leal said. “That’s it man. I didn’t mean no disrespect man.”
Belver seemed disappointed.
“So nothing’s going to come out of this,” he asked.
The officer cuffed Leal again.
“You got me all excited,” Belver said. “I was ready for it. I thought there was going to be a good fight, but ‘naw’, you changed your mind. You told me you were. You lied to me.”
Leal was surprised, but the officer continued.
“You and I were going to ‘go’, yeah, and then you could walk away,” says Belver.
“Really," asks Leal. Belver’s reply is disturbing.
“Yeah, you could kick my ass, take my gun, shoot me in the head” says the officer. “I don’t care what the f--- you do.”
This wasn’t the first time Belver challenged someone he arrested to a fight.
In 2009, Carlos Flores was pulled over by Belver on suspicion of drunken driving.
According to the SAPD Internal Affairs reports, once Flores was arrested and handcuffed, things took an unusual turn.
According to a statement given by Flores, Belver challenged him, saying, “..if you can kick my a--, I will let you go."
Flores claimed he refused the offer. Nonetheless, Belver “repeatedly struck him the head, arms, and back,” he told officers.
When Flores arrived at the station for processing, his face was bruised and bloodied in his booking photo.
When questioned by Internal Affairs investigators about Flores’ condition, Belver told them that “he didn’t see any injuries.”
Further investigation uncovered another incident a few days prior to Flores’ arrest.
Belver was dispatched to a disturbance call at a residence. One of the men he arrested there told Internal Affairs investigators that the officer handcuffed him, but later removed his shackles and challenged him to a fight.
“Let’s go, you think you’re big s---, hit me,” Belver told him.
The man said that Belver hit him in the head and face and kicked him repeatedly.
An advisory review board reviewed the findings of SAPD’s investigation into the 2009 incidents and recommended an indefinite suspension for Belver.
But Belver was not out of options.
The city’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the city gives any disciplined officer the right to appeal any termination to an independent arbitrator.
An arbitrator is a lawyer with specialized training in both arbitration and an expert in state civil service law and the CBA.
So in 2010, Belver had his arbitration hearing, with both city and officer association representatives in attendance.
The arbitrator reduced Belver’s indefinite suspension to two 30-day suspensions, along with backpay and benefits. After that, Belver was cleared for duty.
That penalty reduction is part of a larger trend at SAPD. Since 2010, officers have been reinstated after indefinite suspensions 27 times, records show.
Five years after winning his job back, Belver had Eloy Leal in the back of his squad car.
As they drove to the station for processing, Leal asked, “What’s the charges?”
“I’ll think of something,” replied Belver. After a pause, he continued. “How about public intoxication, pedestrian in a roadway? Or whatever else I can think of?”
Within minutes, the rear-facing camera would capture at least one reason for Leal’s situation: Belver thought he was disrespectful.
“You’re like ‘Hey cop, can I walk through here? Hey, some investigation you guys did.’ Who talks to people like that," he shouted at Leal.
Belver’s tirade continued.
“I would never talk to anybody like that! That’s why you’re going to jail and I’m not,” he yelled. “And you had the chance to run, fight, to do whatever, but you didn’t, which is not only are you stupid but you’re a coward.”
Belver continued his assessment of Leal.
“On top of it all, it’s all because you’re a disrespectful trashy human being. Like, you can look at you and see how trashy you are.”
Interestingly, Leal never reported Belver, either for his fight for freedom offer or his assessment of his arrestee. He told KSAT 12 that with his past criminal record, he figured no one would believe him.
However, when the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office did a standard review of badge and dash cam evidence, they soon reported what they found to the police department.
Once again, Internal Affairs investigated Belver and once again, Belver was terminated.
So, he appealed to an arbitrator again.
For the 2015 incident with Leal, the arbitrator reduced Belver’s discipline from an indefinite suspension to a 45-day suspension with backpay and benefits.
The Defenders asked Mike Helle, the president of the police officer’s association, about Belver and his past acts of misconduct.
“Sometimes, how they say that ‘bad luck strikes in threes,’" said Helle. “Sometimes, it just happens. But Matthew is a good officer. He means well. He just had a stem of bad luck.”
We asked the SAPD for an interview with Belver, but police officials did not make him available.
“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.”