Black Lives Matter organizer Mike Lowe is shown being arrested last summer in the file photo. Mayor Ivy Taylor has invited him to join a task force on police accountability reform. Lowe criticized a collective-bargaining agreement passed by City Council Thursday for not including accountability reform.
San Antonio's City Council on Thursday approved a collective-bargaining agreement with the police union that doesn't include any reforms to the department's disciplinary process.
By a 9-2 vote, with only council members Rey Saldaña and Ron Nirenberg opposing the agreement, the union prevailed after a nearly three-year fight and a brief lawsuit to secure a five-year contract that includes just about everything the San Antonio Police Officers Association wanted in the first place. Police will still not pay healthcare premiums, though they'll have to pay premiums for dependents (unless they choose a "Consumer Driven Healthcare Plan" that comes with no premiums). Officers will also get the raise they wanted, a 17-percent wage increase over the duration of the contract. And the evergreen clause baked into the deal, which keeps the collective-bargaining agreement in place if the city and union reach an impasse the next time they negotiate, was whittled down from 10 to eight years. This is what the city sued the union over during the heat of negotiations in 2015, arguing the clause is unconstitutional. Under the new agreement, the city will drop that lawsuit.
However, city officials have long said the goal is to keep spending on public safety below 66 percent of San Antonio's general budget. This deal only does that for the first three years of the contract. By the end of the five-year contract, public safety spending will exceed 67 percent of the general fund. City staff claims that if a deal is reached with the fire union, that percentage could fall back to 66 percent; the fire union, however, has shown little interest in going back to the negotiating table.
The last contract between the city and the police union expired in 2014 and triggered a vicious two-and-a-half-year fight. As both sides struggled to reach an agreement, the SAPOA used brutal personal attacks against members of City Council and City staff, particularly City Manager Sheryl Sculley, accusing her of lying to the public and even calling for her removal.
But over the last two months, SAPOA took a more conciliatory tone with Mayor Ivy Taylor, who is taking credit for bridging the divide, and the conversation shifted. Saldaña and Nirenberg, two potential mayoral candidates, began criticizing the deal after details of it emerged earlier this summer, with Saldaña being the most vocal opponent.
At issue for Saldaña and activists calling for police reform is Article 28 of the contract, which lays out disciplinary rules. In short, the clause prevents police officials and arbitrators who take up a case of officer misconduct from using the cop's full disciplinary history when dishing out punishment. In the last few weeks, Congressman Joaquin Castro joined Saldaña in his opposition to the contract. “The proposed police contract is incomplete," Castro said in a statement last week
. "Of the three main issues up for negotiation – salary, benefits and accountability reform – only the first two have been addressed."
Rather than pushing for changes to the disciplinary procedures outlined in the contract, Mayor Ivy Taylor instead announced late Wednesday evening that she's setting up a task force to deal with such reforms. "I also acknowledge the seriousness of all the issues of black dialogue. As a black American, I find it interesting that these issues have only become relevant because of technology," she said during Thursday's meeting. "Minority communities have been dealing with this for years and that's why black people need to affirm that black lives matter."
But the place for that conversation, Taylor says, is within the confines of a task force, not during contract negotiations with the police union. What this task force will do and what kind of power it will have isn't exactly clear at this point. Taylor told reporters Thursday that, generally speaking, it will look at how police collaborate with communities and how the city recruits and trains officers. It's that task force, which Taylor said will start meeting within the next few weeks, that will explore any further reforms around police transparency and accountability.
The task force is diverse, including SAPOA President Mike Helle, local Black Lives Matter organizer Mike Lowe, local NAACP president Oliver Hill, Pride Center chairman Robert Salcido, longtime east side activist Taj Matthews (also the grandson of Rev. Claude Black), Tommy Adkisson (a former county commissioner who ran against Taylor last election), and Brian Dillard, vice president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. Taylor also said she appointed Willie Ng from Bexar County DA Nico LaHood's office.
While it's unclear what policy reforms the task force could ultimately accomplish, Taylor said she hopes activists take a seat at the table. "I hope that they will want to be part of the solution since this is an area of concern for them ... It will be a five-year window before we get back to specific issues that are in the collective-bargaining agreement, but that doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot we can do in the meantime to improve police-community relationships."
But Lowe, for one, says Taylor's solution is unacceptable. "A conversation is not a contract," he told us after council's vote Thursday. "That was forfeited today. A committee, a task force, that's research, that's data, that's talk and talk and talk. It holds no one accountable."