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Planning for an abuse-free PD 

There’s a funny little stratagem employed ever so often in the cat-and-mouse game played out day by day between the press and the press-acuted.

Suppose I have the latest on a federal plan to pump up the gas tax to pay for daily Botox injections for the most stately members of Congress — specifically the would-be empire-in-tatters inheritor John McCain. Now suppose I am charged by law to tell you about it (or at least to tell the people you expect, in turn, to tell you). Now as a gas-tax regulator and regular Karaoke buddy of the canny McCain, it really doesn’t serve my personal or professional interests to spark a new Revolutionary ranting against my agency and politically ambitious compadre. Timing is everything.

Which brings my sorely exhaling lungs to the critical point at hand: Chiefly, the PERF report. You’ve heard of it, surely. Acronym disassemblers would spell that Police Executive Research Forum, the City-commissioned report examining our police department’s use of force in policy and practice.

Although the San Antonio Chief of Police had been holding the use-of-force report for months, the Current was told by the diligent SAPD press flacks that Chief William McManus wouldn’t be releasing it until he had drafted his response. Then, the City Manager’s office was saying that McManus wanted to personally brief all of our diligent Councilmembers prior to release.

Just as we were all forgetting the thing was lingering like a downer cow, it was the Third of July, the pre-holiday holiday where we still show up at work but are already swooning with visions of the Battle for Bunker Hill and plotting how to surround ourselves with the most Chinese fireworks possible. Others simply start to slip, ever so gently, into an alcohol cocoon.

Now that the three-day weekend is over and we are all starting to fizzle back to work, I am guessing that this major news item (dutifully blogged at and elsewhere last week) may have slipped beneath your radar. Chief McManus was understandably tied up on Tuesday, so we’ll have to gamble an explanation of our own.

We’d start something like this:

Reported cases of use-of-force by San Antonio police increased by 20 percent between 2006 and 2007 — from 526 to 631 — according to SAPD data revealed by last week’s release of a long-expected report by the D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum. Despite that jump, the investigators say Alamo City’s police are on the right track. In some cases, the PERF report states, the department is downright progressive.

“Overall, the San Antonio Police Department’s use-of-force, officer involved shooting and citizen complaint policies and training are aligned with national practices and with the standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies,” the report reads. “However, PERF found that there are numerous opportunities for improvement.”

In our July 3 cocoon-delaying blog post, I outlined a handful of PERF’s 141 recommendations. They include limiting taser discharges, not standing in the way of moving vehicles, removing warnings about potential aggravated perjury charges from citizen complaint forms, and taking the Tactical Response Unit out of camouflage.

While the department’s reported use of force increased, the PERF report attributes this to the “proactive anti-crime tactics” of the TRU, which have inspired dozens of complaints since the unit hit the streets in 2007.

Meanwhile, use of tasers appears to have increased the use of “less lethal weapons” (from three percent of cases in 2004 to seven percent in 2007) and reduced the percentage of injury-less arrests (from 25 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2007). Puncture wounds, “most likely” attributable to tasers, are also up since 2004.

While the exact methodologies may not mesh precisely, a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice found in a survey of more than 7,500 arrests nationally, 80 percent were made without weapons. By comparison, SAPD’s stats show the officers resisted the urge to draw in 58 percent of the cases where use of force was employed. Injuries from use of force typically (48 percent of the time) result in scratches and bruises, according to the DOJ. SAPD’s numbers published in the PERF report average in the mid-30s.

Though far from an indictment, the 98-pager is packed with fascinating statistics to prompt conversation — one reason, we are sure, the City was so enthusiastic to keep the findings close to the chest for so long.

McManus has agreed to follow 105 of PERF’s recommendations. These include no more tasering of bicyclists, working in a required pause between taser jolts, and having Internal Investigations to respond to all officer involved shootings.

Other suggested improvements, such as if, how, and when a complaint about police officers will be prepared in the person’s native language and whether the complainant can have a copy of their statement, will be reviewed.

A handful of recommendations, including having the Citizen’s Advisory Action Board review all sustained allegations of abuse and taking the TRU out of its adopted camo, are simply off the table for McManus.

It’s important for folks to remember that the PERF report is a limited study of police practices in SA. Its members had only the briefest of engagements with the public at exactly one open community meeting.

Despite its limitations, despite the way its release was delayed and mishandled, the document is a positive thing for all in Alamo City. Now the crucial follow-up conversations can begin. •

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