Understand: How arbitration plays out for disciplined San Antonio police officers

Fired SAPD officers have gotten back their jobs in two-thirds of cases since 2010

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. Have a question about this topic for our investigative team? Ask here.

Most large cities in the United States have a disciplinary appeals process for its police officers, and San Antonio is no exception.

In Texas, state law lays out the processes and limitations in place, which allows officers to appeal any action taken against them by their department.

Under San Antonio police’s collective bargaining agreement, officers who have a grievance are required to file it within 21 calendar days of the event that caused it. For suspensions, officers have 15 calendar days to file an appeal.

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After a few administrative steps, an officer’s appeal is heard by a “qualified, neutral arbitrator,” whose qualifications include knowledge of state employment and civil service law, and any local codes, including the police officers’ collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator’s decision can overrule any previous choice made by the police chief or review board.

Both the police administration and the San Antonio Police Officers Association, the local union that provides legal counsel to officers, have a say in selecting the arbitrator. While both sides sometimes agree on the arbitrator, they often don’t.

In that case, SAPD and the union are presented with a list of seven attorneys who are certified with the American Arbitration Association and work outside the region. The two sides must narrow down the list until one arbitrator remains, similar to the process of selecting a jury.

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Then, an arbitration hearing is scheduled, which is open to the public.

In that hearing, both sides present their witnesses and documentation and often the officer and police chief testify. The arbitrator considers the case and then makes a decision at a later date.

While the collective bargaining agreement prescribes that grievances must be resolved within a year of when the process began, extensions can be granted. In some cases, disciplinary actions take years to be resolved.

When the ruling is in the officer’s favor, they’re usually awarded backpay and benefits to make up for the disciplinary action.

Although the arbitrator’s decision is typically binding, either party can appeal to a state district judge to argue the arbitrator overstepped their jurisdictional authority as laid out by local and state law.

The case can further be appealed to the Fourth Court of Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court if no resolution is reached.

In the past decade, fired officers have been reinstated in more than two-thirds of the time, either by a third-party arbitrator or after the chief reconsidered their termination, according to a KSAT analysis using data obtained under public information law.

“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.”