San Antonio – As protesters continue to call for police reform, San Antonio City Council members are indicating they have a mind to listen to them.
“If things were exactly how they should be, people wouldn’t be marching in the streets,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
Council members shared their thoughts for changing the San Antonio Police Department during a virtual briefing Wednesday by Chief William McManus and city staff on police-community relations and current policies and procedures.
‘Defund the police’
Less than a week after numerous activists urged them to “defund the police,” some council members had questions about department funding and the possibility of moving money around.
“If federal grants can fund basics like equipment and training for SAPD, can San Antonio reallocate our local budget dollars to other departments that complement public safety - like housing and mental health?” District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino included in a list of questions for McManus.
“For many, many years I’ve been asking for more funding for delegate agencies, and perhaps this is an opportunity to do that,” said District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales. “If we’re serious about homelessness, can we redirect funds that the police department does for homelessness to social services agencies that are better equipped to do that work?”
A universal definition of defunding the police is hard to come by. Depending on whom you ask, it could range from taking money from police budgets to use for other services, all the way to dismantling an entire department.
District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry both seemed to balk at the idea.
“Nobody is going to defund them in a way that’s going to result in fewer cops patrolling the neighborhoods in my district,” Pelaez said, adding that he thinks it’s also unreasonable for police to say nothing is wrong with the status quo.
“I’ll fight to keep the budgets where they’re at, or even higher, to provide that safety and security that our taxpayers are wanting,” Perry said.
The original budget for SAPD for fiscal 2020 was $479.1 million. That was decreased to $474.7 million in the mid-year adjustment — primarily because of savings and grants. About 80% of the police department’s budget is tied directly to requirements in the current police union contract, like salaries, healthcare, and pensions, said city staff.
Other council member ideas for change ranged from using polygraph tests to help vet new recruits for racist ideology, per District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, to changing how leadership at the San Antonio Police Department works, per Gonzales, who asked whether the chief of police and other top staff have to be law enforcement officers. City staff said they do.
“If we want our law enforcement officers to do different duties, then perhaps they should have different backgrounds and experiences,” Gonzales said.
Meanwhile, a presentation by Manus and city staff heavily featured the current investigation and disciplinary process for officer misconduct.
The process for discipline is regulated by Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code and the current police union contract. Officers are afforded several protections like a 48-hour notice before an interview with Internal Affairs, the ability to view all evidence against them before questioning, and the option to appeal the chief’s decision on punishment to an arbitrator.
A KSAT Defenders investigation found that two-thirds of fired officers won their jobs back through appeals between 2010 and 2019.
“Consequences for misconduct must be certain, and they must be final. If they’re not, we get police officers back on the department that need to be fired,” McManus told council members.
Reached by phone following Wednesday’s meeting, San Antonio Police Officer Association Mike Helle said McManus over-punishes officers and accused him of being swayed by political pressure.
“That’s the problem with chief is that there is, and there does need to be, consequences for misconduct,” Helle said. “Not every infraction that’s brought upon your workforce needs to be derived to termination.”
The current union contract expires Sep. 30, 2021, and McManus called for state and local elected officials to help push to change the sections of the current contract that deal with discipline and internal investigations.
"The time for that to happen is now, if there ever was one," McManus said.
Local voters have the power to repeal both chapter 143, the civil service for police and firefighters, and chapter 174, which provides them the right to collectively bargain, by petitioning to get the issue on a ballot. The two chapters were adopted by voters in 1947 and 1974, respectively.
In her comments Wednesday, District 2 Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan seemed to call for the repeal of both.
“I ask that the city of San Antonio continue to let their voices be heard and to go to ensuring that this petition to repeal things that have been done prior to any of us being alive,” Andrews-Sullivan said.
According to the Rivard Report, at least one group is already pursuing that effort.
Community listening sessions
District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda, the chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said residents will also get their chances to weigh in on policing in San Antonio through a series of three “community listening sessions.”
The sessions will be held:
- Monday, Jun. 15, 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. (Virtual)
- Thursday, Jun 18, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. (City Council Chambers)
- Saturday, Jun 20, 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. (Virtual)
Residents can provide comments for the virtual meetings through:
- Texting SAPolice to 55000
- Submitting a voicemail to 210-207-6991
- If you want to speak live during the meeting via live callback, leave your name and number in the voicemail
To speak at the in-person meeting, sign up for public comment here.
The meetings will be live streamed on TVSA AT&T channel 99, Grande channel 20, Spectrum channel 21, digital antenna 16.1, and the city’s Facebook page. Participants can also listen live by calling (210) 207-5555 and enter the password 1111.