SAN ANTONIO – A confrontation ends with a civilian killed by a police officer. Outrage and protests follow. Then calls for accountability.
And then it happens again, in some other city in the United States.
To many it seems we’re stuck in a cycle. It’s why activists in communities across the nation are calling for police reform. And it’s why when you vote in the May 1 election, you’ll have the chance to vote for or against Proposition B.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the effort to repeal San Antonio police officers’ collective bargaining power. But there have been mixed messages on the issue, leading to confusion for voters. In this episode of KSAT Explains, we’re explaining what Prop B is all about, the arguments for and against it, and what it would and wouldn’t accomplish if passed. (Watch the full episode in the video player above.)
What is Prop B?
Last summer, local woman Oji Martin founded a group called Fix SAPD. Martin said she reached her tipping point after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and after watching Broken Blue, the KSAT special on misconduct and disciplinary procedures within the San Antonio Police Department.
With the goal of reforming the police department, the group launched two petition drives to get two items on the May ballot. The ultimate goal was to repeal two local government codes that, among other things, provide protections for police officers under investigation.
“There is lack of accountability in our police system, and that’s what’s causing all these issues,” said Martin when KSAT talked to her about the petition drive in September.
Ultimately, Fix SAPD only amassed enough signatures to get Prop B on the ballot -- the proposed repeal of Texas Local Government Code Chapter 174. They are still working on the petition drive to repeal 143.
Chapter 174, explained
This is what Prop B looks like:
As is the case with a lot of ballot initiatives, the wording itself is confusing. It calls for the repeal of Chapter 174, which allows police unions to collectively bargain while keeping in place the rule that says officers can’t strike or stage a lockout.
Collective bargaining is a process in which a union and their employer, in this case the city, determine wages, hours and working conditions for all the employees the union represents: police officers. It’s contract negotiations. And right now, it’s a major debate.
Fix SAPD said they decided to go after collective bargaining, because they believe a lot of the issues with police accountability start with the contract.
“You just follow the breadcrumbs and you realize bad contracts lead to poor performance by some of these officers,” said Fix SAPD board member EJ Pinnock. “These contracts are set up by certain laws. In this case, state laws. And Prop B allows us to go ahead and change all of those things.”
Fix SAPD believes voting yes on Prop B is a step toward more accountability. But the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association has labeled a vote for Prop B a vote for defunding the police.
“Defund the police” became a national rallying cry in the wake of protests for police reform. It means reallocating funding from police departments to other government agencies.
But Prop B would not directly affect the budget of SAPD in any way.
Still, SAPOA President Danny Diaz argues that defunding would be the ultimate effect. Diaz says that because doing away with collective bargaining would remove one negotiating tool from the union, which he says would threaten competitive benefits for officers.
Fix SAPD calls the defund label for Prop B a scare tactic.
Of the eight largest cities in Texas, only San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi use collective bargaining.
The union has questioned why Fix SAPD is targeting collective bargaining in the first place, instead of specific parts of the police contract they take issue with.
“Why did they not go after Articles 28 and 29,” Diaz said. “That’s what deals with our discipline.”
But we checked with the city. And according to the San Antonio City Attorney, Fix SAPD couldn’t put the contract to a city-wide vote.
So the process of negotiating that contract is in the group’s crosshairs.
How many officers have gotten their job back because of arbitration?
For years, certain aspects of the police union’s contract have been questioned.
One major sticking point -- arbitration. Under the current contract, an officer fired by the police chief can have a third-party arbitrator determine whether they should get their job back.
The union argues arbitration has rarely given an officer his or her job back. They say it’s happened 10 times over 10 years. Fix SAPD says 70 percent of all SAPD officers fired get their jobs back.
This back and forth has been a huge point of contention in this debate. So which stat is true?
KSAT crunched the numbers. Here’s what we found:
From 2010 to the summer of 2020, there were 71 police officer terminations. Some of those cases are still pending. In 43 cases, the officer appealed their termination and a decision was made whether to put that officer back on the job. Ten of those officers got their jobs back through arbitration. Twenty were brought back by the police chief, which in some cases happens because it becomes too expensive for the city to uphold an officer’s firing through the arbitration process.
This amounts to 69.8 percent of fired officers who appealed their terminations being brought back to the force from 2010 to summer 2020.
What else is in the police contract?
It’s not just arbitration that’s been highlighted as one of the aspects of the collective bargaining agreement that needs a closer look.
Here are a few other often criticized items in the police contract:
- The police chief can only discipline officers for up to 180 days from the date of a violation.
- The police chief can’t consider misconduct older than 10 years for drug and alcohol violations, and older than five years for violent violations, during the disciplinary process.
- The current contract allows officers accused of wrongdoing to get 48 hours notice before speaking with internal investigators.
Some of these issues are being discussed between the union and the city as they’re negotiating right now. The current contract is set to expire in September. The union argues they’re already talking about possible changes, so why rid them of collective bargaining?
But Chapter 174 is only the first step in Fix SAPD’s plan to reform the police department.
What is Chapter 143?
San Antonians adopted Chapter 143, or “civil service,” in 1947. It’s a broad law that lays out how a city handles personnel issues for firefighters and police officers. It covers things like hirings, promotions and benefits. It does not, however, address officer pay.
Without collective bargaining, a contract between the city and union is not required. City staff and the city manager would recommend officer pay and benefits, and the city council would vote whether to approve.
But 143 does cover firings and the process used for discipline. And because it is in place, even if Chapter 174 is repealed in May, police would still have protections in place.
What does Chapter 143 say about firings and discipline?
When it comes to hiring, firing and discipline -- think of Chapter 143 as a baseline. If a collective bargaining agreement goes away, 143 spells out how to proceed. A lot of those rules are the same or similar to the rules spelled out in the current contract between the city and union.
For example, under 143 a hearing examiner can make a ruling if an officer appeals a termination. Similar to arbitration.
Chapter 143 also says only the police chief can view an officer’s personnel file, not the media or the general public. And it says the police chief can’t suspend an officer for an offense that happened more than 180 days ago. Which is also in the current contract.
That’s why Fix SAPD wants Chapter 143 to be repealed, too. But organizers say repealing 174 is the first step.
But Chapter 143 is a tougher target. Fix SAPD got the more than 20,000 signatures needed to put 174 in front of voters. Repealing 143 requires roughly 80,000 signatures collected in 180 days.
Julia Gannaway, an attorney who represents Texas cities in negotiations and civil service issues, said to her knowledge no city has been successful in repealing 143.
“143 is like the Hotel California,” Gannaway said. “You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. You can’t get out of it.”
What is meet and confer?
If collective bargaining is repealed in May, the police union and city could still negotiate a contract under what’s known as a “meet and confer” system.
Think of it as collective bargaining light. It can still bring both sides to the negotiating table. But they don’t have to if they don’t want to.
The police union has to agree to meet and confer and petition the city. Then city council has to approve it, or they could let voters decide.
Fix SAPD supports meet and confer and points to the city of Austin as an example.
“In Austin, they actually have better pay, better benefits and they have a meet and confer system,” said Fix SAPD board member James Dykman during a Prop B debate held by KSAT, San Antonio Report and Bexar Facts. “We can still attract great officers to the city as they do.”
Crime, pay, civilian oversight
Are crime rates skyrocketing in Texas? Would San Antonio police officers lose competitive pay under a meet and confer system? Would civilians have more oversight if Prop B passes? Watch the video below for clarification on some of the biggest questions surrounding the Prop B debate.