City officials eye long-term SAPD changeups as activists continue to push to ‘de-fund’ police

Local activists have repeatedly called to reallocate money from the police budget, among other changes to the department

SAN ANTONIO – Despite calls to “de-fund the police,” San Antonio officials continue to appear focused on longer-term moves to change the department.

During a budget work session Wednesday afternoon, San Antonio City Council member and staff conversations focused largely on issues related to the current union contract and a proposed months-long plan to revamp the department’s functions. Though there were questions about the proposed $8.1 million increase in the San Antonio Police Department’s general fund budget, no council members requested any sweeping cuts during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

For months, local activists have clamored for city leaders to reallocate funding from the police budget into other areas, such as housing, education, or health care. Instead, a first draft of the FY 2021 budget, proposed by city staff and unveiled on Aug. 6, would increase the San Antonio Police Department's budget from $479.1 million to $487.2 million, causing one woman to tell council members it felt like a "slap in the face."

Michael Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA), however, told Mayor Ron Nirenberg in a letter dated Wednesday that the union supports the proposed budget.

"As you begin your budget deliberations, we implore you to remember that, according to several recent polls, your constituents, the people of San Antonio, overwhelmingly SUPPORT San Antonio police officers and REJECT calls to 'defund police,'" Helle wrote.

It was not clear to which specific polls Helle was referring to, though he told KSAT via text message they were “national polls.”

Locally, a Bexar Facts-KSAT-San Antonio Report Poll conducted Jun. 10-14 showed support for both police officers and various police reforms. However, it did not include questions about de-funding police.

The city council’s Public Safety Committee also held a series of listening sessions, collecting 343 comments. Out of those, some of which included multiple suggestions, Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez said 97 called for reallocating money from the police department or de-funding police. On the other side, 94 called for council members to keep funding where it is.

The third-highest category of comments, with 83, called for changing the police union contract or repealing two statues of state law that deal with collective bargaining and discipline procedures for firefighters and police unions. Though activists have discussed efforts to repeal Chapter 143 and 174 locally, the necessary petitions to get the issues onto the ballot have not yet appeared.

Numerous online public comments on Wednesday continued to support reallocating money from police and repealing Chapter 143 and Chapter 174.

Meanwhile, a process being promoted by City Manager Erik Walsh to review and possibly revamp what role police officers play in the city and what kind of calls they respond to could conceivably lead to large-scale changes for the police department.

"There's probably a lot of calls that probably don't require a police officer to respond," Walsh told council members on Wednesday, noting that the city would still need to find funding for whoever does respond to those calls.

"So we're going to have to -- if we shift responsibilities like that -- then we're going to have to identify funding or find new funding or cut back on police spending and maybe not hire positions in the future or not add positions in the future," Walsh continued.

However, Walsh expects the review process would last until April 2021. So any resulting funding shifts would happen in future budgets.

District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia warned her colleagues about taking things too slowly, though.

"I just, again, want to caution us on taking too much time, because I think that what I've seen from a lot of these groups is that they want action now," she said.

The proposed $8.1 million increase in the FY 2021 budget is largely due to scheduled, 5% raises for officers and increased health care costs.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran suggested the city approach the police union about possibly taking a smaller raise in solidarity with the civilian employees, whose pay would be frozen under the proposed budget, “and we could budget it out for the remainder of the years, if possible.”

In all, Chief McManus said about $387.1 million of the department's $487.2 million general fund budget is related to the city's collective bargaining agreement with SAPOA. The remaining $100.1 million from the SAPD's portion of the general fund goes towards costs like civilian employees, fuel and facilities maintenance.

The council also discussed a resolution the mayor had previously put forward, listing priorities for the upcoming negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officer Association. The current union contract expires Sept. 30, 2021, and negotiations are supposed to begin by January.

Topping the list of priorities in the resolution were issues related to officer discipline and arbitration like:

  • “eliminating the 180-day limitation on imposing discipline, 
  • "the ability to include past discipline in current disciplinary considerations;
  • "the ability to independently appoint a citizen review board to review internal affairs investigations and make disciplinary recommendations;
  • a balanced arbitration process that limits the arbitrator’s authority to a determination of the facts and includes a role for the Police Chief and/or the City Manager in final discipline.”

City officials have pointed to what they perceive as the police chief’s inability to fire problematic officers because of protections afforded by the current union contract. Data obtained by KSAT under public information law showed fired officers who later appealed were reinstated to their jobs 67.5% of the time from 2010-2019, either by a third-party arbitrator or after the chief reconsidered their termination.

Chief William McManus told council members he does not oppose an appeals process, but “it’s just the current process that bothers me.”

“I don’t think that that’s someone who is coming in here, who doesn’t know the culture of the city, doesn’t know the department, makes that decision and doesn’t have to live with it and flies out on the next plane, I just have an issue with that,” McManus said.

Nirenberg said the council would move forward with the resolution “hopefully” next week.

It’s not the last time city officials will consider the police budget. The series of work sessions that last until September serve more as in-depth briefings on various parts of the budgets. In the meantime, the city will host town hall sessions and take input from residents.

District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello-Havrda, the chairwoman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said she would also like to have a smaller budget session at a committee meeting to give stakeholders and constituents more time to review the issues.

Council members are expected to make two rounds of amendments on Sept. 9 and Sept. 16 before they finally adopt a budget.

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