San Antonio – An activist group focused on police reform wants city voters’ help to eliminate the enforcement of low-level marijuana possession and criminal abortion cases in San Antonio.
Act 4 SA plans to launch a campaign Tuesday to put a city charter amendment with numerous policing policy changes onto the May 2023 ballot.
Decriminalizing abortion and marijuana possession are the centerpieces. But the 13-page “San Antonio Justice Charter Initiative” would also expand existing San Antonio Police policies and make them permanent -- such as the cite-and-release program, bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants.
The omnibus proposal requires at least 20,000 signatures before it can be put in front of voters.
Act 4 SA Executive Director Ananda Tomas said her group and its partners hope to gather 35,000 signatures by early January.
“Altogether, this will create a safer San Antonio for all. You need more than one step to do this, and we can do this in one fell swoop,” Tomas said Monday.
The existing SAPD cite-and-release program already allows officers to issue citations instead of arresting people for certain low-level offenses, including marijuana possession. The proposed charter change would forbid officers from even issuing citations in most cases.
Ground Game Texas Political Director Mike Siegel, whose group is assisting with the campaign, says Austin passed a similar measure in May, and the plan is on the ballot in San Marcos and several other Texas cities in November.
The San Antonio measure, though, includes an additional measure to prohibit police officers from using the smell of marijuana or hemp as probable cause for a search.
Meanwhile, Siegel says the portion decriminalizing abortion would be a first for Texas.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, a state trigger law took effect in August, which makes performing an abortion punishable by up to life in prison.
The proposed city charter amendment, though, would explicitly prohibit SAPD officers from enforcing any criminal abortion laws. The only exceptions would be in cases where force or coercion was used, or if there was criminally negligent conduct relating to the patient’s health.
“We think that there are others better suited to -- for these laws,” Tomas said. “We know that there’s going to be a lot changing, a lot of challenges for these laws. And we as a city -- to protect ourselves, our community members, you know, even our law enforcement folks -- this is something that we shall not be partaking in.”
The San Antonio City Council passed a largely symbolic resolution supporting abortion rights in August. Although the resolution included a policy recommendation against spending city money on various enforcement actions, it did not decriminalize abortions or make them legal within the city.
City Attorney Andy Segovia told council members at the time that “under the framework of state law and the city charter, the council cannot direct the city manager to enforce or not enforce specific laws.”
However, the activists involved in the proposed charter change believe they’re on solid legal footing.
Siegel, a former Austin assistant city attorney, said San Antonio voters have “home rule authority” to determine how to spend local resources.
“This is the way we push back against these hateful and unjust criminal abortion laws is by taking local action to say, ‘We’re not going to do this in our name. You’re not going to use our dollars. State legislature, if you really want enforce these laws, come up with money on your own,’” Siegel said.
MAKING POLICY PERMANENT
The charter amendment proposal would also make some existing SAPD policies permanent and even expand some of them.
Bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants are already part of the SAPD general manual, and the department has participated in a cite-and-release program since 2019.
However, Tomas says, “If you have a change of your police chief, right, your administration -- these are things that can change.”
The justice charter proposal would add further restrictions to how SAPD could execute warrants, including a minimum 30 second wait time before they could enter and limited use of flash bangs.
It would also add graffiti as an eligible offense for the cite-and-release program.
The proposed charter amendment would also create a new, appointed position called the “Justice Director” who would be responsible for telling council members how various city decisions could affect the new “justice policy” of: reducing mass incarceration, mitigating “racially discriminatory law enforcement practices,” and saving “scarce public resources for greater public needs.”
Anyone with past experience in law enforcement would not be eligible for the position.
The May 2023 election will be the first opportunity to change the city charter since voters amended it to allow more flexibility in spending bond money in May 2021.