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After Use Of Force In Protests, SAPD Policies And Discipline Go Under City Council Microscope

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San Antonio Police Chief William McManus attends Wednesday's Council Meeting via video conference

San Antonio City Council is reexamining the policies of the Police Department following nearly two weeks of protests against the killing of George Floyd and calls for police reform.  

At least two nights of protest in San Antonio turned violent last week prompting use of force from SAPD officers nears the Alamo. The conversation of revising police policies comes as many cities look to implement changes after nationwide protests and protesters call for the defunding of police departments or relocation of funds.

Members of City Council reviewed SAPD’s discipline process, training and the proposed reform policies on Wednesday afternoon during a three-hour meeting.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the protests in the city “righteous demonstrations” and a wake-up call.

“If things were exactly how they should be, people wouldn’t be marching in the streets,” Nirenberg said. “We are a great department, there’s no doubt about that — we’ve been recognized as such nationwide — but I do think people recognize the need for change.”

On Saturday, May 30, and Tuesday, June 2, SAPD officers used projectiles like rubber bullets, wooden pegs, pepper pellets and other crowd disbursement tactics like tear gas outside the Alamo and along Houston Street.

During the meeting, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran asked San Antonio Police Chief William McManus if he felt the use of force was necessary.

| Related:  San Antonio Police Explain Rules Guiding Their Use of Tear Gas And Projectiles |

“My concern is what we saw … that you were using (force) against San Antonians who were demonstrating using their First Amendment rights,” she said adding about an injury a man in Austin suffered when being hit in the head with a rubber bullet.

McManus said on those two nights, officers were being pelted with bottles and bricks and destruction of property was taking place.

“If those munitions are used according to direction, if you will, they’re supposed to be fired at a certain distance … they’re required to be fired below the waist — and if they are, they won’t cause those types of damage that you saw in Austin,” McManus said.

The chief added that any use of force like that would need to be directly authorized by him.

“If — and hopefully we don’t ever have to use them again — but if they are, then the order to use those weapons, the instruction to use those weapons has to come from me directly,” McManus said, adding that SAPD policies allow for the use of the weapons in certain circumstances.

Much of Wednesday’s discussion focused on the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the San Antonio Police Officers Association, also known as the police union.

Under the contract, SAPD officers have strong protections against discipline authorized under Texas laws like civil service and a state statute known as Section 174 which allows for bargaining contracts between police and fire unions and the government that employs them, like the City of San Antonio.

San Antonio voters give police officers — and firefighters — those protections and collective bargaining rights in two separate votes: one in 1947 for civil service protections and one in 1974 for collective bargaining. Those two votes were the result of citizen-driven petitions at the time. Those can also be removed via public petition and a vote as well.

These protections for officers include a 180-day limitation on when discipline can be implemented from the time an infraction was committed. It also allows an officer a 48-hour notice before speaking with internal affairs. If the chief of police decides a punishment like suspension or termination, the officer can appeal and request arbitration which can ultimately allow an officer to stay on the job or have punishments reduced.  

Chief McManus expressed his own frustration on how far his discipline can go.

“There has to be consequences for misconduct — and there are right now — but they have to be certain and they have to be final. If they’re not, we get police officer’s back on the department that need to be fired, state law and collective  bargaining contracts protect bad officers.”

According to a Washington Post study cited by City Manager Erik Walsh during the meeting, about 70  percent of San Antonio Police officers who have been terminated received their jobs back after an appeal.

McManus said when a fired officer is put back on the job, they’ll be given a task that is not very public facing.

“There are some that we believe have been involved in things that we consider too egregious to put them back on the street so we will find positions in the department where they have very little interaction with the public.”

SAPD detective Mike Helle, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, said McManus was making excuses for “his inability to properly investigate” and  appropriately argue cases filed against officers

“Every other police chief prior to him has never had an issue or made as much — I don’t want to say crying about it — but certainly making noise about it as much as he has,” Helle said.

The current police contract, which the City Council approved in 2016, expires in October 2021. Negotiations must begin by February next year. The City and police union reached several stalemates in negotiations during the last negotiation session, mostly centered around healthcare costs.

Helle is retiring from the department later this year and will also leave his position president of the union. An election for a new union president is expected in December.

When asked how the current police protests and calls for department reforms would affect future negotiations, he said all contract negotiations have had some underlying factor influencing discussions and this time would be no different.

“We have been very logical in making well adjusted changes that benefit  the community, the city and our workforce and the police department, but if it’s based on hyperbole ... or it’s based on innuendo and not really any kind of fact, then I think we’re probably going to be in for a very long negotiation session,” Helle said.

The San Antonio City Council is preparing to restart the meetings of its Public Safety Committee, which has oversight of the police department. The committee will begin the first of three community listening sessions this Monday.

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

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