Why San Antonio's Police Union Endorsed Ivy Taylor for Mayor

Two years ago, Mayor Ivy Taylor and San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle were in the midst of a drawn-out, contentious battle over the police union's contract with the city. Helle called Taylor "toxic" and a "danger to public safety." Under Taylor's watch, the city filed a lawsuit against Helle and the entire SAPOA.

But on Wednesday, the two hugged on the steps of City Hall, shortly after Helle announced the union's endorsement of Taylor for reelection.

"Two years ago, it was a little different story between the mayor and I," Helle told reporters at the afternoon press conference. But, because Taylor was eventually able to find "middle ground" on the contract negotiations, Helle called her "a candidate that we feel we can trust." Helle was flanked by about ten other union members, who nodded in agreement.

"I believe we have a great partnership," Taylor said.

The endorsement comes after Taylor helped usher in a new police union contract last summer, a contract her opponent in the June 10 runoff election, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, voted against. Taylor's negotiations with the union also put her in the crosshairs of local Black Lives Matter and police reform activists, who have criticized her for failing to score even minor reforms to the department's disciplinary policies.

While contract talks had largely focused on financial issues, by last summer, opponents to Taylor's negotiated deal with the union, including Councilman Rey Saldaña and even Congressman Joaquin Castro, had honed in on department disciplinary procedures that shield some cops from being held accountable for prior misconduct after enough time has passed. Activists like Mike Lowe, who's led marches decrying police brutality in the city, pointed to other problems with the contract — like the fact that cops accused of serious misconduct and fired by the police chief can still keep their jobs through arbitration.

click to enlarge San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle endorsing Mayor Ivy Taylor Wednesday afternoon. - Alex Zielinski
Alex Zielinski
San Antonio Police Officers Association President Mike Helle endorsing Mayor Ivy Taylor Wednesday afternoon.

The five-year contract that Taylor negotiated and ultimately passed through City Council gave the union just about everything it wanted — like a 17 percent wage increase, no healthcare premium costs, and no new reforms to the department's disciplinary procedures.

Amid the backlash from activists, Taylor set up a police-community relations task force to build trust between police and policed through roundtable conversations.

However, activists like Lowe who were invited to sit at the table quickly grew frustrated when that task force failed to tackle the issues that brought them there in the first place — like the fact that cops here are more likely to use force against people of color, might beat you into paralysis if they mistake you for a suspect or might shoot and kill you if they think your cell phone's a gun. Several meetings in, the task force hadn't even brought up the union contract or its protections for errant cops.

Lowe ultimately dropped out of the meetings earlier this year, telling us, "How do you have a conversation like that without discussing the specific things we keep bringing up that, to us, show that the police have done wrong?”

Union leaders, meanwhile, saw the task force as an opportunity to educate the public on how to better interact with cops. When we spoke with him earlier this year, here's how Dean Fischer, SAPOA vice president and member of the mayor's task force, explained one of those lessons: “If I have to chase you, it’s your fault. If I have to fight you, it’s your fault. If I have to shoot you, it’s your fault.”

On Wednesday, Taylor called the police-community relations task force a success. Her policy advisor, Andrew Solano, told us the group has now met seven times and sent us the group's policy recommendations to bring to council sometime next month. Many of the suggestions reflect Fischer's strategy, like increasing SAPD recruitment at public schools to training citizens to understand why police have to sometimes shoot people. Here's the full list of suggestions:

"The mayor wants this to continue," Solano told the Current, but added that some of the changes the community wants can only be handled by the state or the feds.

The SAPOA contract is up for renegotiations again in five years. At Wednesday's press conference, Helle told reporters that Taylor's opponent, Councilman Ron Nirenberg, has promised to immediately reopen contract negotiations and "start hashing and slashing" benefits and pay if elected — which, according to the Nirenberg campaign, is an "absolute lie." Nirenberg, who joined Saldaña as the only down vote on the contract last summer, had said at the time of the contract's passage that Taylor "ignored the goals we established for the health of this city." As he put it back then:
"[B]y the fourth year of this agreement, the proposed contract increases to more than 66 percent of the budget. By year five, according to city staff, we will be more than $20 million over budget. That’s the rough equivalent of the entire delegate agency budget that funds organizations dealing with some of the most urgent issues in our city, from child abuse to literacy. That’s not fiscally responsible."

Helle promised that if Nirenberg's elected mayor ("which I pray to God doesn't happen," he said), the union will again have a strained relationship with City Hall. That could be because, according to Helle, Taylor's office is more open to expanding the city's public safety budget, which city officials have previously said they wanted to cap at 66 percent. "I think Mayor Ivy Taylor gives you that flexibility going forward," Helle said.


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