Despite concern over lack of independent oversight, San Antonio council OKs police contract

The five-year pact would rein in an arbitrator's ability to override the chief's decision to fire bad officers while providing hefty raises over the course of the contract.

click to enlarge Police accountability activist Ananda Tomas speaks during Thursday's council meeting. - Screen Capture / SATV
Screen Capture / SATV
Police accountability activist Ananda Tomas speaks during Thursday's council meeting.
City council approved a new, discipline-focused contract with San Antonio's powerful police union Thursday on an 8-3 vote despite calls from accountability activists for more civilian oversight of officers.

Approval of the five-year agreement comes after months of negotiations between city staff and the San Antonio Police Officers Union (SAPOA) that were largely devoid of the public rancor that marked bargaining sessions going back to the late '80s.

That deal also followed a referendum last year forced by police-accountability advocates on whether to strip the union of collective bargaining power. Though defeated on a 2% margin, the narrow miss suggested nearly half of San Antonio voters harbor concerns about police abuse of power. 

Prior to the vote, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the new contract provides accountability and transparency while giving officers fiscally responsible pay and benefits improvements. 

"You saw a city and a community work together, along with [SAPOA] to achieve what I think will now be a solid contract that represents the interests of our community, that takes care of its members in the police department and ensures the executive accountability and authority of our police chief," Nirenberg said.

The labor pact would rein in an arbitrator's ability to override the chief's decision to fire problem officers. That process has been a major complaint from advocacy groups who argue that San Antonio has one of the highest rates of problem officers being allowed to return to the force.

Also under the contract, the chief will have a longer window of time in which to bring disciplinary charges and would also be able to go back further in an officer's record when making disciplinary decisions.

On the compensation side, the deal would bump up officers’ paychecks by nearly 16% over the life of the contract, including a 2% lump sum payment within the next 30 days. 

The union approved the agreement in April with 86% support from its members. 

Those on council who voted against the contract's approval agreed with activists, who said city negotiators failed to secure an independent citizen review board with investigative power — something present in every other major Texas city. District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, and District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo all balked at signing off on the deal.

SAPD's current oversight body, the Chief’s Complaint and Administrative Review Board, is comprised of police and civilian members and advises the chief on disciplinary cases. However, it can't making binding recommendations or initiate investigations. 

"We have no ability to run independent audits or investigations," Ananda Tomas of police-reform  group Act 4 SA told council prior to the vote. "We deserve a seat at the table when it comes to the policing in our community."

McKee-Rodriguez said he will continue pushing for a more expansive and diverse oversight board. He acknowledged that SAPOA is well-funded and well-connected but urged his colleagues to listen to others in the community.

"There are other voices that carry the stories, the heartbreak and the wisdom that comes from a lived experience of over-policing and fatal interactions with law enforcement," he said, then ticking off the names of Marquise Jones, Charles Roundtree and other San Antonians who lost their lives during police encounters.

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