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New Study Finds Civilian Oversight Of San Antonio Police Lacks Transparency, Data

Police officers are prepped with riot gear in downtown San Antonio before a protest calling to an end for police brutality on May 30, 2020.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio

Anew report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research finds civilian oversight of the San Antonio Police Department suffers from a lack of data access, a lack of independence and uncertain legal status, as well as a complete lack of transparency and public reporting.

It found all of the Texas’ biggest police departments are in need of civilian police oversight with more resources, fewer legislative hurdles, as well as proper experience and training.

In “Who’s Policing the Police?: A Comparison of the Civilian Agencies that Perform Oversight of Police in Texas’ Five Largest Cities,” Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton and staff researcher Steve Sherman analyzed police oversight agencies and institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth.

They based their report on how well the agencies aligned with or diverged from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s — or NACOLE’s — guiding principles.

The San Antonio Police Department forwarded a statement to Texas Public Radio from City Manager Erik Walsh, which said:

“In my professional opinion, the disciplinary and the arbitration processes need to be rebalanced. As we head into the upcoming police contract negotiations, our focus will be on reforming the disciplinary process. The provision of the collective bargaining agreement that limits the Chief’s ability to serve as the final authority on discipline must be reformed first for any other changes to the process to be effective.”

The analysis by the Kinder Institute found that Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth are closer to meeting national standards for citizen oversight than Houston and San Antonio. That’s because the police “monitors” of the former cities have independence from the police department and full-time, professional staff members who don’t just review use-of-force cases but also conduct their own investigations.

“Extensive research suggests that an ineffective and opaque civilian oversight system may be worse than no oversight system at all,” the researchers wrote. “If starting or reforming an oversight system, that system should be funded and supported.”

A staff sufficient to deal with investigations, reviews and policy research is essential, the researchers wrote. While Austin has about 15 paid employees and plans to grow that number to 20, most agencies have fewer than five paid staffers to oversee thousands of officers.

The researchers also said state law, particularlyLocal Government Code 143, may create barriers to civilian oversight. The law sets many of the parameters that govern how cities can review officer’s personnel files, consider past disciplinary infractions, discipline officers in a reasonable time frame or perform other civilian oversight activities.

The president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, Michael Helle, wrote to TPR saying NACOLE is a nonprofit board, not affiliated with the FBI or the DOJ.

“So the initial claim of the San Antonio Police Department's civilian oversight being outside of some national standards is blatantly false. SAPOA and the City of San Antonio have, through our collective bargaining agreement, pioneered one of Texas's first civilian review board components in 1995,” Helle wrote.

San Antonio's current police review system for internal affairs, he said, includes seven civilians who review all documents, may question all parties and participate in final recommendations to the chief on disciplinary action.

Helle added that Texas cities operate independently of each other to achieve different goals, so “just because San Antonio has chosen a different way, doesn’t make us wrong.”

In their study, the Kinder Institute researchers acknowledged that no two oversight institutions are the same.

“We hope that cities exploring reforming their oversight agencies, or forming new ones, take into account local concerns and the political environment of their own city and ways to involve both citizens and officers in civilian oversight.”

Implementing best practices in civilian oversight will also require changing key clauses in union contracts. The report states those contracts often set the power and scope of oversight groups and can impact their effectiveness.

In addition, oversight organizations need strong legal backing and board members need training, including learning more about patrol work.

“Training of civilian board members is necessary because many civilians have strong opinions about police yet possess little knowledge,” the researchers wrote, noting that some cities do mandate a strict training regimen.

Cities looking to revamp their agencies should refer to the NACOLE principles for selecting and training staff and board members, such as a basic familiarity with state laws and the history of the local police and their challenges, they wrote.

Ultimately, civilian oversight is “only part of any overall effort to improve police accountability,” the report read. “Improving accountability also requires policymakers improving lines of communication between the police and residents, and police departments making their data more publicly available.”

The researchers say better oversight institutions increase civilian trust in the police and lower rates of assaults against officers, Fulton said.

They believe effective oversight groups would see the police not only as subjects of scrutiny but also participants, since rank-and-file officers have inside knowledge of their department’s challenges.

Read the full report here.

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