SAN ANTONIO – Ernest Salinas lives in the Dellview community near I-10 and Vance Jackson and is part of the Citizens on Patrol group that looks out for problems in his neighborhood.
“We actually keeping an eye out on what’s going on in the neighborhood, make sure that the elderly are taken care of, make sure that there’s nothing going on, make sure the panhandlers, vagrants, are not getting into properties,” he said.
Salinas said calls and complaints to the city and police about vagrants trespassing into vacant homes and even into public properties, however, are not yielding the results they desire.
“We call the police continuously. And again, a trespassing call can turn into a welfare check,” he said.
Salinas blames the lack of interest in making arrests after a policy change by the Bexar County District Attorney that took effect last April.
According to the policy, the DA’s office has the right to reject cases where the criminal trespass calls fall under the following guidelines:
- The offense occurred at a nonresidential place.
- Criminal trespassing is the only charge.
- The defendant appears to be homeless
- The defendant does not have any violent history and is not currently on probation/deferred for any offense.
The policy does not prevent officers from making arrests. Once the arrest is made, the charges are reviewed.
“My policy has never instructed, requested or demanded law enforcement not make those arrests. They have the discretion to do that. In fact, they have been doing that all along,” said Joe Gonzales, Bexar County District Attorney.
Figures provided by his office showed a 24% decrease in the number of criminal trespass cases being prosecuted from April to December 2019 compared to the same time frame in 2018.
Gonzales said there was some confusion at the magistrate level that impacted the numbers three months after the policy was enacted, which caused the numbers to be lower. But overall, he said the figures have been consistent.
“There’s not a difference in terms of the number of cases that we’re reviewing and in accepting when they were a righteous case,” Gonzales said. “Because if the person commits a crime, then we’re going to make the decision to go forward and prosecute that individual.”
Gonzales said the issue of vagrants is a complex, societal one that needs a real community solution, but his policy change is not to blame.
The San Antonio Fear Free Environment Unit with the San Antonio Police Department said it has been in touch with the community taking a “proactive approach” in the area around the 1600 Block of Vance Jackson, near the Walmart shopping center. Police records show five calls for service to that area since May of last year.
Police said officers have met with the Dellview Homeowners Association about residents’ concerns and will continue to work with them.
City Council District 1 representatives also say they have been trying to provide help. Councilman Roberto Trevino released a letter to Dellview residents on Feb. 13 addressing their concerns:
Salinas said neighbors are threatening to take matters into their own hands.
"I think people figure, ‘Why call the police? Why report them? Nothing’s going to get done.’ One of the things that I’m hearing from some of my neighbors is that, ‘Hey, we’re going to take action when we see these with these people in our area, on our property,’” he said.
Salinas said he has no problem helping people who are truly homeless, but the people he’s dealing with just don’t want the help.
“Give them an option. Do you want help or do you want to go to jail?” Salinas suggested to the city.
Police urge people in any community not to confront vagrants whether its in private or public property, but instead call police.