McManus: No place in SAPD for fired officer who repeatedly punched handcuffed pregnant woman

Elizabeth Montoya’s attorney successfully argues to include discipline of other officers as evidence

Before San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus could even begin testifying Thursday, the attorney representing an officer McManus fired a little over three years ago secured a big legal victory.

SAN ANTONIO – Before San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus could even begin testifying Thursday, the attorney representing an officer McManus fired a little over three years ago secured a big legal victory.

A third-party arbitrator allowed officer Elizabeth Montoya’s attorney, Robert Leonard, to enter as evidence discipline briefings for 17 other SAPD officers.

Like Montoya, they had been accused of mistreating people in their custody or care. Unlike Montoya, the officers had not been terminated for their actions.

Montoya was fired in January 2019, months after body worn camera and in-car camera footage showed her repeatedly punch suspect Kimberly Esparza seven times in the head and once in the side while Montoya was attempting to place her in a patrol vehicle following a search for drugs.

“And watching this video, if I had to do this over again, I’d indefinitely suspend her again. This is entirely uncalled for and that’s why she got terminated,” said McManus, who testified for about three hours.

Video played by assistant city attorneys included one angle from an in-car camera that clearly showed Montoya deliver repeated blows to Esparza’s face and to the back of her head during the July 2018 incident near downtown.

“That’s not what we want. That’s not what we can have on the street and expect to get along with the community,” said McManus, who described Montoya’s action as retaliatory.

The chief later acknowledged that Montoya was not placed in the department’s Officer Concern Program or ordered to go through retraining, two options often given to officers after their interactions with the public are called into question.

McManus also conceded while questioned by Leonard that other officers at the scene the night of Esparza’s arrest were not formally disciplined even though they were present while Esparza lay in the street for 26 minutes in heavy rainfall.

The incident was listed in Montoya’s termination paperwork.

Esparza, described as 5 feet 1 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds, was barefoot and six months pregnant while Montoya attempted to search her for drugs in the 1200 block of San Luis Street just west of downtown.

Esparza would not comply with many of Montoya’s instructions during the search before the incident escalated inside the back of an SAPD patrol vehicle.

Esparza was charged with assault of a public servant, resisting arrest and possession of a controlled substance -- penalty group III, typically used to charge someone who illegally possesses prescription drugs with common medical uses.

While the drug possession charge was rejected at the time of Esparza’s booking, she was held in jail on the resisting arrest and assault charges, as well as for outstanding warrants from a previous burglary case.

All charges were later dismissed, court records show, but not before Esparza spent 46 days in jail.

Esparza’s attorney was able to get her client released from jail prior to Esparza delivering the baby.

Esparza eventually delivered a healthy baby girl, who turned three years old last year, her attorney said.

While Leonard has conceded this week that his client punched Esparza, he has described Montoya’s actions as “compliance strikes” and that she was subjected to “disparate treatment” after internal affairs concluded its investigation of her.

Former San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle. (KSAT)

After the city rested its case around 1:20 p.m., Leonard called to the stand former San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle, who retired as an SAPD detective last year.

Helle outlined the ways McManus and SAPD administration failed to offer Montoya retraining, a last chance agreement or placement in the department’s Officer Concern Program.

“His decision making, and all aspects of it, are not without judgment,” said Helle, referring to McManus.

A second witness called by Montoya’s attorney, Jerry Staton, spoke at length about use-of-force incidents and how officers act during stressful situations.

Staton, a former Austin Police Department officer, runs a police consulting business and serves as an expert witness.

He has in the past testified against police departments, including SAPD, and the actions of its officers.

Staton testified Thursday that after reviewing the materials in the Montoya case, he felt her actions were reasonable and in line with how other officers in those stressful circumstances may have responded.

Current SAPOA President Danny Diaz testified briefly on behalf of Montoya Thursday afternoon.

Diaz was followed by Joe Salvaggio, a longtime SAPD officer who also recently served as police chief of Leon Valley before being terminated early last year.

Salvaggio was terminated by SAPD in 2010, after internal affairs investigators claimed he cheated on a captain’s entrance exam.

But the then-veteran SAPD officer repeatedly declared his innocence and rejected eight offers to return to duty, since each offer included a written reprimand for the testing incident.

Despite a third-party arbitrator siding with Salvaggio, McManus for years stood behind his decision to fire the then-lieutenant.

That decision led to the city repeatedly losing in court.

A district court judge upheld the arbitrator’s ruling, the Fourth Court of Appeals sided with Salvaggio and the Texas Supreme Court then denied a request from the city to hear the case.

Salvaggio was eventually reinstated and then promoted to captain in 2014, and for a time was one of the highest paid city of San Antonio employees because of back pay and other compensation.

Montoya’s arbitration will likely conclude on Friday.

The arbitrator will then issue a decision within the next several months on whether to reinstate her.

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About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.