Last week, protesters from Act 4 SA and the Party for Socialism and Liberation descended on the San Antonio Police Department's downtown headquarters, calling for the arrest of officer James Brennand.
Brennand was the now-former SAPD officer who made national headlines when he shot and wounded 17-year-old Erik Cantu as the unarmed teen ate a burger in a McDonald's parking lot. As of press time, Cantu remains on life support.
Less than an hour after the protesters headed home, Police Chief William McManus announced that the department had filed two felony counts of aggravated assault by a peace officer against Brennand.
Although those charges appear to be a victory for protesters, police accountability advocates said Brennand's charges are an anomaly, which they attributed to his rookie status and lack of union representation.
"It's much easier to fire this officer and for him to stay fired because he isn't covered by the union," said Ananda Tomas, founder and executive director of police accountability nonprofit Act 4 SA.
Among those present at the protest demanding justice for Cantu was the family of 13-year-old AJ Hernandez, who was shot and killed by SAPD Officer Stephen Ramos in June. Hernandez was the second civilian killed by Ramos in two years.
And although the shootings of Cantu and Hernandez have striking similarities — they both attracted national attention and involved teens behind the wheel — Ramos remains on paid administrative duty.
Only three months apart, Ramos and Brennand claimed to have fired their weapons in self-defense. Ramos said he shot at the vehicle Hernandez was in after it T-boned a colleague's cruiser — something the officer said posed a threat to his fellow officer.
Brennand initially told SAPD that he fired his weapon after he was struck by Cantu's vehicle as the teen tried to flee the scene.
However, police accountability advocates said body cam footage from both incidents appear to contradict the officers' statements.
During a June press conference, Lee Merritt, the high-profile civil rights attorney representing Hernandez's family, told reporters that the vehicle struck the police cruiser at a speed of no more than two miles per hour. That narrative appears to align with the eyewitness account of Jesse Hernandez, a neighbor who told the Express-News that he didn't see any damage to the cruiser.
Unlike Ramos' body cam footage, Brennand's was released to the public. It's unclear from that footage whether Cantu's car struck the officer.
Despite those similarities, several months after the incident, Hernandez's family members said they're upset the case has yet to be brought before a grand jury.
Hernandez's aunt, Stephanie Martinez, told the Current Brennand is being offered as SAPD's sacrificial lamb.
"If [Brennand] wasn't on a probationary period, we would have a different outcome; he'd be on administrative duty just like Ramos," Martinez said. "It's like Chief McManus said, he's not protected by the union. He cannot appeal his case, he's basically on his own."
Rookie officers like Brennand must complete a year-long probationary period before being eligible for the benefits provided by the police union.
Without union representation, Brennand must find his own lawyer. What's more, he's not entitled to appeal his termination from the department via arbitration, a process which if nothing else, can delay terminations and court hearings for months, if not years.
"You look at AJ's case, and this is the second person that Officer Ramos has shot and killed," Act 4 SA's Tomas said. "But Brennand isn't covered by the union, and I really think that those are two of the largest factors here for why they're being treated differently."
A primary example of the power of the San Antonio Police Union is former Lt. Lee Rakun, said Tomas.
Rakun was fired by SAPD seven times during his 27-year tenure on the force, winning his job back each time via arbitration.
He was finally compelled into retirement in 2020, but not before receiving $447,000 in compensation — a cumulation of base pay, medical benefits, accrued leave and other incentives, according to an Express-News report.
Of the 71 SAPD officers fired between 2010 and 2020, 10 were returned to the force by an arbitrator, and 20 were brought back by the police chief, according to the San Antonio Report.
Only 26 of the 71 terminated left SAPD, with only half being forced out after losing their appeal, according to data reviewed by the online news source.
Although Brennand was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault, Tomas and Martinez don't believe it's reason to celebrate.
"It's not progress, because if there was progress, these other victims, along with my nephew, would see the same outcome," Martinez said. "I just want justice for my nephew, I just want equal treatment for everyone."
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