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Performance evaluations raise questions over how SAPD managed officers arrested for Melissa Perez shooting

Ryan Loyd

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The investigation into the murder of Melissa Perez at the hands of San Antonio police officers continues as the city waits to see if any of the arrested officers are indicted in the crime.

Nicholas Villalobos, Alfred Flores and Eleazar Alejandro were arrested within days of the shooting of the mentally ill woman who was suffering a crisis.

TPR was first to report on the disciplinary history involving two of the officers, one of whom was to be fired six years before the shooting, only to settle for a 10-day suspension.

But questions remain on how the city’s police force polices itself. TPR obtained the officers’ performance evaluations. The evaluations laid side by side with disciplinary records are eye-opening in their dissonance. One expert TPR consulted called the disparity between the documents “alarming.”

The same year that patrolman Alejandro was suspended three times — twice for neglect of duty and incompetence — his annual evaluation made no reference to the disciplinary infractions nor of the combined 40 days suspension.

“If you're suspended as a result of an internal affairs investigation, that's something that is significant, that ought to be reflected in the evaluation,” said Jonathan Smith, senior special counsel for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs.

TPR consulted two experts in policing about the shooting case, what the body camera footage showed, and what disciplinary records revealed about the city's supervision of its officers.

Smith directed the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section of Civil Rights, which investigates police departments civil rights violations for five years.

Instead, the evaluation said Alejandro met expectations in competency and interpersonal skills.

He received “meets expectations” of professionalism and judgment despite serving a 15-day suspension for failing to arrest a man with two outstanding warrants who caused an accident with an uninsured vehicle.

In fact, the reviewer checked “meets expectations” for every box on the document without any mention of a series of flaws in the officer’s performance.

“I would expect to at least see a note or an entry in the performance evaluation stating that officer Alejandro had difficulty with issues of conduct,” said Theron Bowman, a former police chief in Arlington who now runs the Bowman Group — which consults for departments.

The San Antonio Police Department did not give TPR an interview on this story but did release a statement:

“Yearly performance evaluations and instances of disciplinary action are distinct processes, each serving a unique purpose," wrote Jesus Salame, deputy police chief. "Annual evaluations, conducted yearly at the line supervisory level, assess overall performance. Conversely, formal discipline is managed by internal affairs, involving higher levels up to the Chief, and is centered around addressing specific incidents necessitating disciplinary measures.”

The department explained that disciplinary actions are about specific incidents and yearly evaluations are about supervisors assessing overall performance. They are conducted by different parts of the department and serve different purposes.

SAPD’s evaluation policy is to look past the specific and “isolated” incidents and at the totality of an officer’s performance. It doesn’t say those issues won’t be noted on evaluations.

But Bowman said most officers go 25-30 years without three suspensions of 15 days or more.

“To see three major suspensions recommended within about a four month period is really unusual,” he said. “And typically it's a really serious reflection of the officer’s alleged misconduct.”

The senior San Antonio police officer now awaiting indictment for the murder of Melissa Perez was nearly fired six years ago, according to public records obtained by TPR.

For Detective Alfred Flores, the same year disciplinary records say he skipped an active shooting to grab lunch and also failed to turn in a bag of seized money — he not only met expectations on his evaluation — he was promoted to sergeant.

“It suggests it's no big deal.” said Smith. “And that is a really bad message to send to officers in the department who engage in misconduct, and it's a bad message to officers who want to work in a department where there's order and discipline, and they know what's expected of them.”

According to SAPD policy, annual evaluations aren’t used in promotions which both experts found unusual.

The evaluations are intended as a tool to “identify training needs in order to enhance the service expectations,” reads the policy. But without noting deficiencies, it is unclear how training can be identified.

The documents list scant information — lack any narrative of discussion or space for it, and are just a series of boxes to check around training discussion and career development.

“These evaluations are not, taken as seriously as they should be,” said Bowman.

In addition to the lack of specificity they aren’t thorough. Bowman noted that regarding Flores, one evaluation appears to be either misdated or was conducted a year late and redundantly.

“Employees/personnel need to understand what opportunities they have to improve to provide higher value to the organization,” said Bowman. As the documents appear, it's unclear how much they accomplish this.

Given that the performance evaluations don’t affect promotions and don’t note disciplinary actions, Smith questions their purpose and implications.

“These evaluations would, in my view, be pretty strong evidence that the department didn't even take seriously its own discipline process,” he said.

The lawsuit said Perez was the latest victim of a police force culture of excessive force, lack of training, and undervaluing mental health.

He said you're doing no one any favors by not identifying areas of concern and ways to address them. And while the policy said that is the goal of the evaluations — the substance of the documents suggests otherwise.

“You're risking harm to the community, you’re risking the credibility of the department, and generally, you're risking that officers career by not correcting their ongoing behavior,” he said.

SAPD does use an early warning system to flag potential problem officers. TPR requested records pertaining the effectiveness of the system, but the department has appealed the request to the Attorney General’s office.

If officers like Alejandro and Flores “meet expectations” — Bowman said it could suggest that SAPD expects officers to behave this way. After all, Bowman noted the evaluations are reviewed and signed off on by multiple ranks and commands.

SAPD declined to answer the question about whether multiple infractions and suspensions indeed meet their expectations as well as if they stand by the evaluations now.

“It’s ironic, but it may be a reflection of the truth,” he said. “That may be a reflection of a reality. And if that's the case, and I'm a resident of San Antonio, then I think I'm a little bit concerned.”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org