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San Antonio Justice Charter's lead organizer insists proposal is not an attack on police

Organizers standing in front of the San Antonio Justice Charter on the steps of City Hall. Ananda Tomas, the executive director of ACT 4 SA, one of the organizations leading the push for the charter amendment, stands in front with a microphone.
Josh Peck
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Texas Public Radio
Organizers standing in front of the San Antonio Justice Charter on the steps of City Hall, including Ananda Tomas (center right), the executive director of ACT 4 SA.

Organizers announced a new city charter amendment initiative on Oct. 18 called the San Antonio Justice Charter, which would make a number of reforms related to police practices and enforcement.

The San Antonio Police Officers’ Association (SAPOA) recently came out against the initiative in a statement from its president, Danny Diaz, and the Justice Charter’s lead organizer, ACT 4 SA executive director Ananda Tomas, responded.

The Justice Charter would ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds in the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD), decriminalize low-level marijuana possession and abortion, expand the current cite-and-release policy, and establish a city Justice Director.

The proposed amendment to the city charter requires 20,000 verified signatures by January in order to make it onto the May municipal ballot, where it will pass or fail by a simple majority.

Diaz’s statement said the Justice Charter “will only hinder the effective policies in place today” and will “take life or death defense measures off the table.”

Diaz criticized the charter initiative’s ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds as meaningless because SAPD policy already bans them, with an exception for chokeholds and other neck restraints if an officer deems it necessary to protect a human life. The Justice Charter contains no such exception.

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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San Antonio Police Officer's Assocation President Danny Diaz (left) stands with Alonzo Hardin, president of the San Antonio Black Police Officers Coalition during a press conference outside the union headquarters in Northeast San Antonio

The Justice Charter’s ban on no-knock warrants also details a process that would require officers to receive explicit authority to use stun grenades or chemical weapons such as tear gas. It would strongly encourage the city not to execute search warrants when children or elderly people are known to be home.

That section of the charter also states that seizures of property or cash may only be made during the execution of a search warrant if a lawful arrest is made, and that if an individual is not convicted, all seized property or cash be returned to them.

Tomas said enshrining the two policies in the city charter would protect them from future changes.

“The idea behind codifying it is that it stays a permanent practice no matter who your leadership is,” she said.

Regarding abortion and marijuana enforcement, Diaz’s statement said those decisions are up to the state.

“The San Antonio Justice Charter is using these issues to trick people into signing their petitions to vote against law enforcement,” the statement explained.

But one example of local enforcement discretion is the district attorney’s cite-and-release policy, led by DA Joe Gonzales and carried out by both SAPD and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.

This policy means that instead of arresting individuals for an array of nonviolent misdemeanors — including possession of 0-4 ounces of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids, thefts and criminal mischief between $100 and $750, driving without a license and graffiti — they are instead given a citation.

At that point, the DA makes a determination whether to send the case to a diversion program, throw the case out, or prosecute. According to data from the DA, 65% of citations given under the program from July 2019 to July 2022 were for possession of 0-4 ounces of marijuana, and 98% of those cases were thrown out.

The Justice Charter’s decriminalization of low-level marijuana possession would only make one change to the current cite-and-release policy surrounding marijuana enforcement. Police would no longer have the ability to search someone if the only reason is the smell of marijuana or hemp.

Tomas said it’s part of an effort to move resources away from marijuana and abortion enforcement and protect the policy from changes in the DA’s office or law enforcement leadership.

“What this is saying is making a statement that we as a city don’t prioritize enforcement for low-level marijuana or abortion enforcement,” Tomas said. “And so therefore, if the state wants to make sure that that’s criminalized and enforce it, they can use their resources to do that. But we as a city don’t want our resources, including police, to go that way.”

Diaz said the policy has led to a savings of $4.7 million in booking costs, which was reported on the Bexar County DA’s Office website, but Diaz asked, “at what expense?”

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales

“Unfortunately, due to our current District Attorney Joe Gonzales, the community feels the negative impact when dangerous criminals and repeat offenders are being released back into our streets in record time,” Diaz’s statement reads, appearing to conflate the cite-and-release policy, which only applies to nonviolent misdemeanors, and violent crime.

Marc LaHood, Gonzales’ opponent in this November’s DA race — and who the SAPOA has endorsed — has repeatedly criticized the cite-and-release policy. He could revoke it if elected. LaHood has also said he would enforce the state’s recently imposed criminalization of abortions, which went into place shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

TPR’s “The Source” held a candidate forum between LaHood and Gonzales earlier this month.

Gonzales and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar have both said they won’t pursue criminal cases over abortions. The Texas law makes it a felony to practice an abortion.

If LaHood won in November, but the Justice Charter passed in May, the current cite-and-release policy would stay in place, and he would not be able to end it or enforce abortion laws without pushing for a new city charter amendment.

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Courtesy DSABC
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Marc LaHood (right) embraces Ron Tooke, president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association of Bexar County. LaHood enjoys support for multiple local law enforcement unions as he runs on an aggressive "Tough on Crime" campaign.

The final piece of the Justice Charter is the establishment of a city Justice Director. This individual, who the charter language says shall not have worked in law enforcement or have investments in the law enforcement industry, would be appointed by the City Council.

Their qualifications, according to the charter, would be experience related to reducing the city’s impact on mass incarceration, “mitigating racist and discriminatory law enforcement practices,” and saving public resources for “greater needs.”

The Justice Director’s duties include providing justice impact statements to City Council before all votes relating to the city’s justice policy, including annual budgets and contracts related to sworn SAPD officers, and providing an annual justice impact report in collaboration with the City Manager. The Justice Director would also hold public quarterly meetings to discuss justice policy with SAPD, the DA’s Office, and community organizations.

Diaz criticized the Justice Director position, asking “what qualifications [would this citizen] have to responsibly oversee policing policies without any background or experience in law enforcement or city government?”

Tomas said the criticism reveals either a misunderstanding of the policy, or the failure to read it.

“They're just a little misinformed,” she said. “It does say we would prefer not to have somebody that served in law enforcement, but it does not say anything about city government or administration. … They didn’t read the policy if this is what they’re taking from it.”

She suggested that individuals who were formerly judges or worked in the city manager's office could have the qualifications necessary for the role.

Tomas insisted the Justice Charter is not an attack on police.

“There’s no piece of this that’s anti-law enforcement,” she said. “What this is about is fighting mass incarceration and pushing police accountability and transparency, but this is as much about protecting the community as it is officers.”

Read the full language of the Justice Charter and the SAPOA’s full statement.

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Josh Peck is the Technology & Entrepreneurship Reporter for Texas Public Radio.