Officer discipline takes center stage as city and San Antonio police union start contract talks

May 1 vote to repeal officers’ collective bargaining power looms over contract talks

SAN ANTONIO – As the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio Police Officers Association began negotiations on a new union contract Friday, it’s already clear that much of the talks will revolve around officer discipline.

The negotiations to replace the current contract, which ends Sep. 30, come after months of protests and calls to change the San Antonio Police Department, and Deputy City Manager and lead negotiator for the city Maria Villagomez said Friday that discipline is the city’s “top priority.”

The city’s positions on this front, which it laid out in the first meeting of the two sides inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, include:

  • changing the timeline in which the police chief can discipline officers;
  • letting the chief consider any prior disciplinary measures when imposing new discipline;
  • restricting the evidence an accused officer can review before an interview with Internal Affairs to just body-cam footage.

One of its most ambitious priorities, though, is restricting the scope of any appeals on discipline to a consideration of the facts of the case, not the level of discipline doled out. This would mean an arbitrator would be unable to change a firing to a suspension -- something that has frustrated Chief William McManus in the past.

The KSAT 12 Defenders found that, over a 10-year period, roughly two-thirds of officers who sought to appeal their firing were reinstated, either through arbitration or by the police chief.

“We want the final discipline to be assessed by the chief or the city manager,” Villagomez said Friday after the first meeting concluded.

That looks to be an extremely tough sell for the union, though.

“If the arbitrator says, ‘Well, the facts are correct. Oh, I can’t overturn it,’ then what you’ve done is really -- that’s just one step above at-will employment to me,” said attorney Ron DeLord, SAPOA’s lead negotiator.

Some of the city’s other priorities include giving the city the ability to set working hours in the department and the authority to “civilianize” any department assignments that don’t require the power to arrest someone.

The city also wants to keep its public safety spending under 66% of the General Fund. It currently stands at about 64.2%, Villagomez said.

It’s not clear yet what the union will seek out of negotiations, though final proposals are expected by the third meeting. Both sides agreed to meet at the convention center at 10 a.m. Friday, Feb. 19. The talks will be livestreamed again on the city’s website.

Looming over the talks, though, is the possibility that they could all be for nothing.

In the May 1 election, city voters will decide whether to repeal Chapter 174, a state statute that gives police officers the power to collectively bargain for a contract. If voters repeal the chapter and the election is canvassed before a new agreement is finalized, there won’t be any new agreement.

Instead, SAPD would revert back to the scaled-down policies and procedures in another state statute, Chapter 143, known as “Civil Service,” once the current contract ends. The same activist group that got Chapter 174 onto the ballot, though, is continuing to gather signatures in an attempt to get a repeal of Chapter 143 onto a future ballot, too.

While it’s possible the two sides could reach a deal and have it ratified before the election, which would lock the contract in for its primary term, the odds seem long. It took more than two years before both sides ratified the last contract.

Any agreement reached at the bargaining table would have to be approved by the San Antonio City Council and the SAPOA membership before it’s a done deal.

About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.