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'We Won’t Defund The Police' — Mayor Nirenberg Discusses San Antonio Police Reforms, Contract

Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses the public at a press conference on March 16.
Dominic Anthony | Texas Public Radio
Mayor Ron Nirenberg addresses the public at a press conference on March 16.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke with Texas Public Radio Friday morning, hours before San Antonio Police Chief William McManus announced a new body camera footage release policy.

The new policy — set to go into effect on Dec. 21 — lays out a timeline for potential releases of body camera footage. Whenever an SAPD officer shoots someone or uses force “that results in death or serious bodily injury,” the chief will make a public decision on whether or not to release footage within 60 days. The change comes weeks after the mayor’s office called for a review of the current policy, which does not include any timeline for decisions on footage releases.

SAPD’s statement said, “The revised policy will be applicable to future critical incidents.”

SAPD has continued to withhold body camera footage from the police killing of Darrell Zemault Sr., and the city has rejected open records requests for that footage. SAPD confirmed to Texas Public Radio that the shooting of Zemault will not fall under the new policy.

In a written statement, Mayor Nirenberg told TPR, “I asked for the body camera policy review because I believe it is in the community’s interest to make the footage public whenever it is reasonable. The chief will inform the public in writing within 60 days of an incident if a video will not be released. The public should know the protocol so they can have reasonable expectations about the release of footage, and the procedures should lean toward transparency. This policy does that.”

Nirenberg spoke with Texas Public Radio’s Dominic Anthony Walsh about police reforms, contract negotiations and funding.


The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The attached audio contains the full interview.

Bodycam policy

Dominic Anthony Walsh: Let's look at other cities in Texas. If Darrell Zemault Sr. had been killed in Dallas instead of San Antonio, body cam footage would have been released the same week, regardless of any ongoing investigations. That's because Dallas implemented a 72-hour release policy back in June. Would you like to see San Antonio move in that type of direction?

Mayor Ron Nirenberg: So as a routine matter, the footage — I believe — should be released (in a timely manner) unless it truly serves the interest of justice not to make it public. And I believe that it's in the public interest to make footage public whenever it's reasonable. You know, there's a lot of cities that adopt policies with strict timeline guidance, but the police chief still has discretion, and quite often those timelines are not met. So we want a very transparent process in which footage would be released in a timely manner, and the public knows when it will be released. And if it's not released, there needs to be clear, demonstrated guidance in writing from the police chief himself.

Reforming the police department

Walsh: You've expressed support for the Eight Can't Wait platform — eight policies that supposedly reduce police violence by 72%. According to Eight Can't Wait, San Antonio now has seven of the eight policies in place. The only remaining reform is to ban shooting at moving vehicles. First, do you have any updates on that policy?

Nirenberg: We went through a use-of-force policy review in June, in July, and there were several updates made at the time. I believe we had met four of the eight policies, and now we meet seven. The issue with the shooting at moving vehicles: my understanding is that we are meeting the spirit of it. However, (SAPD policy) doesn't prohibit shooting at a moving vehicle in the event the moving vehicle is being used as a weapon against innocent bystanders.

Walsh: Okay, so there's a larger issue here that Eight Can't Wait doesn't really get at: policies, major reforms, small reforms don't really matter a whole ton if they aren't enforced, right?

Nirenberg: Right.

Walsh: And right now, according to The Washington Post, more than half of San Antonio police officers who are fired, are rehired through the contractual arbitration process. A new round of contract negotiations are coming up. Will the arbitration process change?

Nirenberg: Well, we don't know. That's obviously a conversation that's happening right now with our collective bargaining process, as we prepare for it. It's also a conversation that's happening in the state because chapter 143 — which authorizes the arbitration process and disciplinary actions — is made possible through state legislation. But I would underscore what you just said: we can have all the best policies in the world, but if we don't have the proper structures of governance in place — particularly as it relates to providing the chief the authority to weed out officers who are found of misconduct — then it does no good.

Walsh: So what are your other top priorities heading into these negotiations? What exactly should the city's starting position be?

Nirenberg: Well, my goal with the collective bargaining agreement negotiations is to improve disciplinary rules. That's the highest priority and I think the one that is clearest and most important to the general public as well. I want to enhance accountability, discipline, transparency and public safety at the same time. By far, we know most San Antonio police officers are excellent public servants and they risked their lives daily to protect us, and we want to treat them right and provide what they need to do the job. But just as every other or every organization has bad employees, the police department is not an exception… So I want to see the negotiations make significant progress on giving the chief the ability to discipline bad officers and make sure his disciplinary decision stick. A good agreement — a fair agreement for officers, for the city and for the general public — is one that supports good officers and allows the chief to discipline the bad ones.

Funding for police

Walsh: Altogether, public safety — police and firefighters — take up well over 50% of the $1.29 billion city budget. One of the most widespread, consistent demands of the folks in the streets this summer was to ‘defund the police,’ who received more than $500 million from the general fund. Some people want to see complete defunding and abolition, a more moderate segment uses the word to refer to reallocation — shifting some amount of money away from police and towards community needs — health, housing, income support, the list goes on, but essentially programs that address the root causes of poverty and crime. Do you support some level of reduction in funding of police and reallocation of those funds towards community needs?

Nirenberg: So I do not support defunding the police. We won't defund the police. That's never been on the table. We do want to have the best police department that we possibly can have. The issue of community building and community development at the expense of growing public safety budgets, though, has been at the heart of our collective bargaining negotiations in the past. The challenge for us is that as we make those corrections and help rein in the costs of out-of-control benefits, for instance — it can't be done overnight. What we've done is make sure that we're allocating proper resources towards training, towards the right level of equipment and personnel levels. But we also have to ensure that the public safety budgets are growing in proportion to the rest of the city budget, which wasn't the case prior to the last round of collective bargaining negotiations. So we'll continue to seek ways that we can make ourselves efficient as a city. I think with regard to reallocation, it is absolutely true. We do not have enough in our budget to properly fund things like health infrastructure and housing and community development. And that's been a focus of my agenda since I became mayor. It can't simply be done by arbitrarily cutting public safety budgets, though. We have to work together to find balance.

Walsh: You mentioned ‘arbitrarily cutting public safety budgets…’ — I think proponents of defunding police would argue it's not arbitrary. You have what they refer to as the root causes of crime: poverty, lack of access to housing. In their eyes, instead of addressing those root causes, you're essentially giving a lot of money to (SAPD) to then police the crimes that result from those inequities… So just to be clear, as the city budget grows, as the city grows, you think the police department budget should grow in perpetuity along with that?

Nirenberg: It should grow in proportion, but not more than that. And I'll be clear: when we started the collective bargaining process the last time, the budget, the expenses simply on the benefits side were growing two and a half times faster than city revenues. I agree that there needs to be (a larger) portion of our budgets devoted to community building. But again, we can't do that simply by arbitrarily cutting services that are needed in emergencies and public safety response. And I'll give you another example: one of the first things I did when coming into office as mayor in 2017 is I created an affordable housing framework that is now putting 10s, multitudes more resources from our city into the establishment of affordable housing. We're doing the same with community infrastructure. We were one of the first big cities in the country to use an equity framework to start budgeting public infrastructure in neighborhoods. We tripled the amount of resources that go towards streets and drainage and sidewalks, and we focus those in the neighborhoods that have been underinvested in for years. That's the kind of work that needs to take place in order for us to build safe communities so that we're not simply policing poverty. But to address the issue of imbalance in city budgets — which I am all about and have been for years — we can't simply do it in one year by arbitrarily lopping off parts of our police budget.

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony