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San Antonio's $570 million police budget scrutinized by city council

Joey Palacios

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San Antonio’s police budget for 2024 will increase 8% to $570 million and add the largest number of police officers seen in a single year. However, scrutiny has come over where some of that spending is going amid calls for more support for mental health calls.

Some of that funding would add 100 new police officers for patrol and five officers for training to increase the number of cadets that can graduate in a year. Speaking to the city council last week, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said increasing the force would allow officers more time to work with neighborhoods.

“Sixty percent of the time that officers that are on the street they’re handling calls for service,” McManus said. “Forty percent of the time they have discretionary time where they can work on neighborhood issues, work with neighborhood associations and HOAs. We want to flip that.”

Those 105 new officers are part of a five year plan to add a total of 360 new officers.

The 2024 plan is about $300 million more than 2023, about a 9% increase. Among the city's priorities: Increase the number of officers for Animal Care Services, police, and fire department.

In the discussion, District 10 councilman Marc Whyte asked about a new program known as hotspot policing where officers flash their vehicle lights in areas with high levels of crime for 15 minutes. The program saw some decrease in crime in those areas, about 25% in its first three months.

“So is it fair to say then, that increased police presence alone is helping decrease crime?" Whyte asked.

McManus responded, "Yes, and that is empirical evidence that was researched by the folks that invented that crime plan.”

Other council council members like Jalen McKee-Rodriguez believe that money could be better spent addressing the root causes of crime rather than a reaction to it — or being used in other departments like Animal Care Services.

“We’re talking about increases that equate to some of our largest departments — these increases could double ACS budget. The capital improvements alone could do that,” he said. "I just want to make that very clear. I want to let it be known that it's not erased from my memory, and I want to make sure that when we’re talking about crime prevention and reduction of crime, is not solely SAPD.”

McKee-Rodriguez has also raised concerns regarding the creation of a $1.1 million training facility for SAPD. He’s said that money should come from a bond and not the general operating budget.

Ananda Thomas, executive director ofACT 4 SA, a police watchdog group, has led some large ballot initiatives like eliminating police collective bargaining and was a proponent of the justice charter amendment this year, both of which failed.

Thomas told the city council on Wednesday rather than push for more officers, the council should advocate that vacant positions be filled first.

“We need to be fiscally responsible here and hold SAPD to the same standards of accountability and fiscal responsibility to see if they can fill their current open positions and add a few more positions next year, a smaller number like 50 or 75 officers before we tie up these valuable tax dollars,” Thomas said.

In April 2022, the city began what it calls SA CORE, which stands for Community Outreach and Resilience effort. It’s a three person unit of a paramedic, a mental health clinician from metro health and a police officer who specially respond to mental health calls.

There’s one team in operation now, and data showed that in its first year, it responded to 1,400 calls — less than 1% resulted in arrest. Another two teams are scheduled to go online in January.

Thomas advocated that the money on new officers could be used to expand SA Core.

“We can fund one more SA Core team, to help avoid deaths like Melissa Perez and Damien Daniels even now, three teams is not enough to handle a third of the calls that we expect to receive for mental health crises," he said.

Three SAPD officers were charged with murder after shooting and killing Melissa Perez in her apartment in June. Perez had schizophrenia; now, families of others with severe mental illnesses worry their loved ones are at risk too.

On June 23, three San Antonio police officers killed Melissa Perez. She was having a mental health crisis, cutting fire alarms in her apartment complex thinking the government was spying on her.

After a verbally aggressive encounter with officers, they shot her through her door.

All three have been charged with murder.

SAPD has a 16 officer mental health unit. Neither the SA CORE Team nor mental health unit was called in response to the Perez crisis.

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

The family has filed a lawsuit, which seemed to prevent the city council from discussing it in full last week under the advice of City Attorney Andy Segovia, when District 1 councilwoman Sukh Kaur had asked about what it would take to get to 24 hour response service for mental health calls.

I want to make it very clear there was no gap and there was mental health services available for that incident, and we could limit the discussion to the general resources available and not talk about that I’d appreciate it.”

The city council will vote on the entire 2024 budget on Sept. 14.

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Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules