No, Thank You: SA Doesn't Want To Be The Next Ferguson

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A sworn statement from an SAPD officer does not coincide with a dash-cam recording of the incident that lead to the death of Jesse Aguirre. - Courtesy
Courtesy
A sworn statement from an SAPD officer does not coincide with a dash-cam recording of the incident that lead to the death of Jesse Aguirre.

"He expired while SAPD officers were laughing and carrying on and appear not to even notice as they continue to put pressure on his neck and back," Piña said.

The dash cam video provided to the Current confirms the officers' behavior — they were, at best, nonchalant about the situation until someone noticed Aguirre wasn't breathing.

But by then, it was too late.

"This is not an isolated instance," said Piña, who has investigated police use-of-force cases for nearly 30 years.

He said excessive force by SAPD officers is more widespread than people realize.

And police officers are experts at teaming up on their report narratives to agree on the same story line and cover up instances of excessive force, according to Piña.

"Usually, the only time we hear about it is when some of the officers just refuses (sic) to do it and writes a report that is different and that's how they get investigated," he said.

Police have not said much about the Aguirre death. Published reports said it was confirmed he was high on drugs and angry because his girlfriend tried to break up with him.

Police said they had to chase him through traffic on U.S. 90 after he ran onto the highway, possibly with suicide on his mind. Officers had to force him to the ground because he struggled with them, according to reports.

Tough Job

Approximately 25 percent of SAPD officers filed use-of-force reports last year and of those, the overwhelming majority only filed one report.

It's no easy call to take such action.

Roger Enriquez, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said police are authorized to use force necessary for compliance, but it should be equal to force they are met with — and that can change quickly.

"The way the law looks at this is police and civilian interaction is a continuum of activity," Enriquez said. "Police can start by asking a question, but things can escalate or deescalate depending on the circumstance."

To learn to navigate this continuum, police officers undergo hundreds of hours of training before they ever step out onto the street to patrol because the job is inherently dangerous.

Even Treviño admitted that he wouldn't encourage his children to take the job.

"It's very honorable but it can be scary at times," the chief said.

For police who work in what Enriquez calls "hotspots," the danger is even more intense.

But even in violent and risky situations, Treviño said an officer's duty is to keep people safe, including those suspected of crimes.

"This is not like a fight in the school yard, it's a completely different scenario. You're an authority figure. You're in a uniform," he said. "They know what you represent, so they'll do everything they can to resist and officers have a fundamental responsibility to protect people from harm."

Roadblocks

While complaints linger about the SAPD, it's actually the department's union, the San Antonio Police Officers Association, which makes Mario Salas burn with disdain.

The long-time community activist and former District 2 councilman doesn't mince words.

"I have as much respect for police as anyone else," Salas said. "I have no respect for a union that defends rotten police officers."

The union refused to speak to the Current and deferred all questions concerning use of force to the department.

According to Salas, even when the police department fires an officer for misbehavior or excessive force, the union steps in. It appeals the decision and, in most instances, gets the officer back on the job.

"They'll go through a civil service board with a three-judge panel," Salas said. "What used to happen when a police officer was particularly abusive is the chief would fire him."

Neither SAPD nor the union get any respect from Marquise Jones' family.

"This officer that killed my nephew was in several altercations up to the death of my nephew. He should have been fired," Bush said.

In 2010, Encina was suspended for 45 days after allegedly trying to fight African Americans at Mama Margies, a restaurant in Northwest San Antonio.

According to an internal affairs report obtained by the San Antonio Express-News, Encina appeared drunk and yelled obscenities at black customers.

Bush believes the SAPOA prevented Encina from being fired.

"In San Antonio, we have a horrible police force. They want to keep it quiet because we're known as a tourist destination," Bush said. "Bad apples exist and everyone covers it up."

Yet there seems to be more accountability nowadays, with increased media attention and just about everybody with a cellphone at the ready to record police.

And if 2014 was any indication, the issue doesn't seem as if it will fade from the spotlight as it did following the Rodney King affair.

The SAPD has recognized this trend and continues to take steps toward more transparency, including last year's use-of-force policy change and pushing for use of body cameras.

"A lot of people have said, 'Well, San Antonio is not Ferguson,' or not the most recent video in Charleston, South Carolina," Treviño said. "We cannot take that for granted."

But such steps are not enough for Jones' family. They resent how the SAPD handled his death.

"I don't trust them. They're not just white officers or Hispanic officers — even black officers," Bush said. "They have this so-called 'blue wall,' that even if they do know the officer is wrong, they are going to protect their own."

Meanwhile, instances of police using force are still increasing in San Antonio, up nearly 2 percent as of March 30 in comparison to this time in 2014.

Only time will tell whether procedures for reporting use of force are improving, along with transparency, or if police officers are simply turning to violence as an easy way to arrest people suspected of crimes.

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