San Antonio police accountability activists say city isn't asking for enough reforms in union talks

click to enlarge Protesters march by a San Antonio police officer at a demonstration last spring. - James Dobbins
James Dobbins
Protesters march by a San Antonio police officer at a demonstration last spring.
San Antonio police reform activists say they’re skeptical that the city will be aggressive enough to win systemic change in its upcoming collective bargaining negotiation with the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA).

“The city is trying to tackle some things,” said Mario Salas, a longtime civil rights leader who served on city council during the late ’90s. “I don't think they're tackling enough. And that needs to be stated to them, which I have been doing.”

In the wake of unprecedented protests against police violence, the city and SAPOA are set to open negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement on February 12. That will start a 60-day clock to reach a new contract.

The process is bound to be tense. Police accountability activists and the city see SAPOA’s current pact as a chief obstacle to holding officers accountable for misconduct. The upcoming negotiations are an opportunity to change that, they say.

Last Wednesday, the city laid out its five main objectives for the collective bargaining, all of which concern officer discipline. Among its goals: prolonging the 180-day period available to discipline officers, the ability to bring up all of an officer’s past conduct in disciplinary proceedings and limiting arbitrators’ power in disciplinary cases.

Reform advocates say they’re pleased to see the city addressing the 180-day rule and taking steps to ensure punishment for misconduct. However, they say the city can’t make adequate inroads just by tweaking the disciplinary process.

“Historically, [SAPOA] have not wanted to address discipline,” said Ananda Tomas, deputy director of the police reform advocacy group Fix SAPD. “I don’t really see that changing that much.”

‘Lack of courage’

To make the point, Salas ticked off several potential reforms the city isn’t planning to address. Those include vetting officers for ties to white supremacy and far-right organizations and reforming the Chief’s Advisory Action Board (CAAB) to give it more oversight power.

“The vetting of these officers is super important, and they’re not even discussing that. It shows a lack of courage. And that lack of courage comes from a number of places,” Salas said.

For one, the union makes significant political contributions, including to the council members that ultimately will vote on a new contract, he added.

“Here’s what we’re going to do: the minimal amount,” Salas said of the city’s starting point in the negotiations. “[SAPOA] will agree to that, and then we’ll sail off into the sunset happily ever after. That looks like the approach.”

Getting even that far with the SAPOA may be a challenge. The organization will be under the leadership of new president John “Danny” Diaz, who in January accused Fix SAPD activists of lying to residents as they collected signatures for a petition to let voters decide whether to let the union engage in collective bargaining. Diaz also alleged that out-of-town provocateurs were the ones pushing reform efforts.

Salas, who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a young man, said that Diaz’s claims were “very reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan rhetoric that was used in the Deep South not that long ago.”

SAPOA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Let’s make a deal

Regardless of the scope of its objectives, the city’s hands may be tied.

SAPOA has publicly expressed a willingness to engage on the 180-day rule, but it’s expected to oppose other, broader changes. Its rank-and-file members also will have the final say on any agreement: at least 50% of SAPOA’s membership, as well a majority of city council, have to approve a contract.

That leaves the onus on the city to make a deal, observers say. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, an eight-year evergreen clause would keep the current agreement in place until September 2029.

That’s why the bigger prize for reform advocates may be on the ballot in the spring.

Two weeks ago, Fix SAPD turned in its petition with more than 20,000 signatures to get a measure on the May ballot that would let voters decide whether to repeal the part of the Texas Local Government Code that guarantees collective bargaining for police unions.

If voters approve, San Antonio police would no longer be able to participate in collective bargaining, removing a significant barrier to strengthening disciplinary and screening measures.

Favorable contract

Reform activists argue that the current contract is so favorable to police officers that more than two-thirds of officers who have been fired for misconduct over the past ten years have wound up back on the force through arbitration. That process is skewed, accountability activists say, because it gives the union major sway over who can serve as an arbitrator.

In addition, the contract limits the window in which officers can be disciplined, requires officers be given a 48-hour notice before they’re interviewed about possible misconduct and limits instances in which an officer’s prior disciplinary history can be brought up in disciplinary proceedings. It also limits civilian oversight on the CAAB, which Salas calls a “sham.”

SAPOA wants to keep the collective bargaining process, but Tomas pointed to Dallas, which has a meet-and-confer agreement with its police and fire associations. That arrangement — under which the city isn’t legally bound by negotiations but is still required to act in good faith — offers a potential alternative.

“We can still have an accountable contract, a contract that pays officers well, without collective bargaining,” she said. “We are simply changing from collective bargaining to meet-and-confer. There will still be negotiations happening, but they will be happening more evenly between parties. That’s all we’re trying to do here.”

Tomas said the city is aimed in the right direction — largely due to public pressure from demonstrations that followed last year’s slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Even so, enacting systemic change remains an uphill battle.

With Fix SAPD’s ballot campaign in the offing, February’s collective bargaining session may be just the beginning of a long, bruising fight to exert more civilian control over San Antonio’s police force.

“This is really about educating San Antonio,” Tomas said. “When we were collecting petition signatures, I would say nine out of ten people signed once they understood the issue and that there was a pathway that could happen now. … It’s about liberating San Antonians from a system that hasn’t worked for them for decades.”

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