The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project, working with a number of local community organizers and victims’ rights groups, released a report last week criticizing the San Antonio Police Department’s citizen-complaint process, claiming the department still suffers from officer misconduct and lax oversight.
Jim Harrington, TCRP director, claims a “departmental culture that protects its own and is unwelcoming of supervision” has led to a long stream of serious incidents over the past three years, many well-known, others that have escaped public attention. The cases cited in the report range from officer sexual misconduct and illegal searches to allegations of officer rudeness and indifference to victims of sexual assault.
Harrington’s son, an attorney visiting San Antonio for a wedding in 2009, sparked the idea for the report after he came across a woman who had been badly beaten in a parking lot. Harrington claims the responding officer, Craig Nash, was rude, abrasive, and angry with the victim. Six months later, Nash, accused of raping a transgender woman while on duty, pleaded guilty to lesser charges and took a one-year prison sentence. Harrington insists Nash’s aberrant behavior was well documented and should have been caught earlier.
In a short, emailed statement, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said the allegations in the report are either history “long since addressed,” or “simply factually incorrect.”
Harrington agreed a number of the cases had been dealt with by SAPD. Others not so much.
The report cites the case of a teenager who was raped who, after officers left her at home rather than transport her to a hospital for testing, hung herself in the family’s garage late last year. While the mother filed a complaint, SAPD took no action against the officers, according to the report.
Also not addressed is the Internal Affairs complaint process, which Harrington said is engineered to protect officers while also trying to catch complainants in a lie. The report cites Patrick Filyk, a criminal defense attorney and former president of the local ACLU chapter, saying, “There is an understanding amongst criminal defense lawyers in San Antonio that you’d never send your client to Internal Affairs. In fact, it might even be malpractice to send your client to Internal Affairs because it can only result in problems for your client.”
TCRP’s report lists over 40 recommendations for the department, many of which have been identified in various department reviews over the past three years, and some of which are already being implemented. In SAPD’s budget presentation before Council this month, McManus said the department has already started requiring increased training for supervisors and detailed a plan to add video cameras to all department patrol vehicles, and the department has already removed aggravated perjury language from its IA complaint forms.
But TCRP’s key recommendation is that San Antonio adopt something akin to Austin’s Office of the Police Monitor, an independent civilian review board set up by the city in 2002 to separately review complaints. According to department stats, SAPD handled 313 citizen-driven complaints, while much smaller Austin, according to OPM numbers, saw 526 citizen complaints. In TCRP’s report, Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier called San Antonio’s lower numbers “alarming,” saying, “That few complaints tells me something is happening at the front door.”
Through the stream of community budget hearings, peppered between run-of-the-mill concerns like sidewalks, streets, and stray animals, council members and city staff have endured loud complaints from a small but persistent group of local religious and conservative activists, decrying what they deem the city’s descent into moral decay. Charges began after the San Pedro Playhouse staged Corpus Christi, a gay-friendly retelling of the Passion Play. As the city’s Cultural Arts Board finalized its recommendations to dole out funding to local groups earlier this month, an impassioned Mike Knuffke, attending with others from the San Antonio Christian Family Association, equated city funding of Corpus Christi to taxpayer funding of al Qaeda, neo-Nazis, or the KKK.
Now the prospect of the city granting domestic-partner benefits to gay and straight employees, something expected to cost an additional $300,000 per year, has lit a fire under the social conservatives. Along with the likes of Knuffke and others with the Christian Family Association making the district rounds on San Pedro, a group of local religious conservatives calling themselves Voices for Marriage have joined the fight, hoping to convince council members that a vote for domestic-partner benefits chips away at the sacred institution of marriage. One elderly man at last week’s District 1 budget hearing insisted acceptance of homosexuality would lead to increased graffiti, theft, and violent crime.
While it’s the first time the city has touched the issue, the benefits plan would put San Antonio on track with 83 percent of Fortune 100 companies. Some of San Antonio’s largest employers, like USAA, and the cities of Dallas and Austin, already offer such benefits. “We offer benefits for those with common-law marriages here, and at this point we’re really just leaving out one population,” District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal said last week. “This is a move that makes us more competitive, it makes us an employer of choice. … These people are our family members, they’re our close friends. There’s no justification for treating them differently.”
Members of Voices for Marriage gathered outside City Hall on Monday felt otherwise. Charles Flowers, a pastor with the Faith Outreach Center International, claimed domestic-partner benefits would put the city on “a dangerous path.”
The council is scheduled to vote on a final budget September 15. Another public budget hearing is being held at 6 p.m. tonight in the Council Chambers (114 W Commerce).
San Antonio Federal District Judge Sam Sparks is expected to decide this week whether to block the state’s new sonogram law that goes into effect Thursday requiring women seeking an abortion to first undergo an invasive sonogram, hear a description of the fetus, and listen to the fetal heartbeat. While a group of local doctors along with the Center for Reproductive Rights have filed a lawsuit to stop it, arguing the new law is unconstitutional, two conservative state lawmakers (Senator Dan Patrick and Representative Sid Miller), and a local anti-abortion lawyer (Allan Parker with the Justice Foundation) tried to butt into the process all throughout August. In three orders over the past month, Sparks has poignantly, and humorously, shot down their requests.
In his first order on August 9, Sparks wrote: “Both parties in this case are well-represented by competent and diligent counsel, and neither they nor this Court needs assistance from Senator Patrick or Representative Miller — particularly when much of their “assistance” is nothing more than thinly-veiled rhetoric. This is a federal lawsuit about the constitutionality of a statute, not a soapbox for politicians or a sounding board for public opinion.”
Patrick and Miller tried again on August 12, and got the same Sparks treatment: “As stated in its August 9, 2011 Order, the Court will not allow this lawsuit to be used as a vehicle for advancing a political agenda, or as the platform for rhetorical grandstanding. Although the outcome of this case will likely have repercussions outside these proceedings, the resolution of this case will depend solely on the legal issues presented. The Court’s time is better spent considering the arguments of the parties than addressing the opportunistic petitions of outsiders.”
Last week, Parker tried to jump into the mix, and Sparks fired off his last order denying “the latest in an unfortunately long line of motions,” saying:
“The Court has already turned down two extremely tempting offers to transform this case from a boring old federal lawsuit into an exciting, politically-charged media circus. As any competent attorney could have predicted, the Court declines the latest invitation as well.
“However, the Court is forced to conclude that Allan E. Parker, Jr. … is anything but competent. … A competent attorney would not have filed this motion in the first place; if he did, he certainly would not have attached exhibits that are both highly prejudicial and legally irrelevant; and if he foolishly did both things, he surely would not be so unprofessional as to file such exhibits unsealed. A competent attorney who did those things would be deliberately disrespecting this Court and knowingly shirking his professional responsibilities, offenses for which he would be lucky to retain his bar card, much less an intact bank balance.”
Legal blog Above The Law glowingly dubbed Judge Sparks’ order their “Benchslap of the Day.” •
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