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Mayor Nirenberg Declares Police Reform A Top Priority For San Antonio City Council

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg speak after a press conference on March 19.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg speak after a press conference on March 19.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wants his council colleagues to zero-in on several police reform priorities ahead of the next collective bargaining session with the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association.

The priorities include a resolution on what the city council would like to see changed in the next contract, speeding along the progress of a nationwide initiative called “8 Can’t Wait,” and identifying race and gender inequalities in policing.

The call for defunding police departments have echoed in the streets of San Antonio and even in city hall. But the concept may not mean complete abolishment of police departments in some circles.

Nirenberg has previously indicated that police shouldn’t be a catchall for community problems.

Amid these calls from protesters, Nirenberg said properly funding social services would alleviate policing of poverty stricken neighborhoods.

“In terms of the budget conversations that are happening throughout the country and here in San Antonio, our goal is to make sure that we have a healthy and balanced approach to allocating the resources of our city so that our calculus for creating healthy communities is not resting and not relying on policing it,” Nirenberg said.

The mayor is dividing up the responsibilities among several committees of council members. The committees had been suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nirenberg reinstated them at the end of May and most recently reconstituted the public safety committee a couple of weeks ago.

In his memo to council members, Nirenberg said the city is well on its way to addressing the “8 Can’t Wait” initiative. It’s a series of policies that police departments are encouraged to reduce use of force.

They include:

·         Banning chokeholds

·         Requiring De-escalation

·         Requiring Warning Before Shooting

·         Requiring Existing All Alternatives Before Shooting

·         Duty to Intervene

·         Ban Shooting at Moving Vehicles

·         Require Use of Force Continuum

·         Requiring Comprehensive Reporting

Campaign Zero, which created the list, says the San Antonio Police Department has met four of those eight requirements: banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation, duty to intervene and use of force continuum.

Nirenberg has assigned the task of overseeing the rest to the public safety committee which is chaired by District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda. She said San Antonio Police officers want to do good by their community.

“I think that we can do this, I think that there’s a way to do this, it’s not going to be easy, there’s going to be obstacles for us as a council, as a city, but I think the 8 Can’t Wait campaign is this way to kind of push through it and just really focus,” she said.

The recent focus on San Antonio Police policies stems from the use of force at two Black Lives Matter protests last week where SAPD used projectiles against protesters.

“Watching that and being so upset at watching my fellow San Antonians get hurt, it’s a wake-up call,” Cabello Havrda said. “This is history being made and we have to push forward to make sure we’re on the right side of history.”

As part of the priorities plan, Nirenberg is requesting the council’s Community Health and Equity Committee evaluate policing practices that promote race and gender equity. Nirenberg said he envisions at least two results out of it.

“One of the simple ones is ensuring diversity, or ensuring a representative makeup of our police department, uh, our city boards and commissions in every aspect of the city,” Nirenberg said. “The other is ensuring an equitable delivery of services, which doesn't necessarily mean dividing everything up equally but more assigning the resource is that we have in the community based on the need and also the history of need in those communities.”

The city’s intergovernmental relations committee – which now includes members of the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court – would develop a legislative agenda to address qualified immunity for the public safety union under Nirenberg’s request.

The whole council would be tasked with adopting a sole policy on officer discipline and budget priorities ahead of the next collective bargaining contract with the police union.

Public safety contract negotiations can be long. It took six years for the city and San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association to sign a contract but that took forced arbitration at the demand of the fire union; which the union won from voters in a referendum it initiated through petition.

The police union however has no such binding arbitration ability. It does have an eight year evergreen clause – like the fire union – where the contract continues after it expires.

“The union and the city, both must recognize that the public is going to hold us accountable to achieving these reforms. And so, knowing that I think there's a tremendous amount of political will among the council and as mayor, I'm not going to bring forward a contract that fall short of it,” Nirenberg said.

Beginning on Monday, the city’s Public Safety Committee will hold three listening sessions to get public feedback on these policies. The first, Monday June 15, will be virtual and streamed by the city’s television station TVSA from 5:30 to 7:30. Residents can offer their feedback by using this form or submitting a voicemail at (210) 207-6991.

Another session on Thursday will allow for in-person comments inside city council chambers from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. 

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