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San Antonio

San Antonio Police Union And City Open Contract Negotiations With Discipline Reform

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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San Antonio Police Officers Association President Danny Diaz (left) and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh (right) open the first day of negotiations between the city and union as both sides come to the bargaining table for the first time. .

The City of San Antonio wasted no time in getting to its key points of discipline reform during opening negotiations with the San Antonio Police Officers Association over a new five-year contract Friday.

Officials with both the union and the city said they are coming to the table with the intent of good faith negotiations, but both of the last contract negotiations with the police and fire unions have either ended up in court or prolonged debates with the invocation of arbitration. The police discussions started as an election for city council begins with a ballot initiative that could impact how negotiations move forward.

Changing the discipline process has been the city’s priority since calls for reform became front and center during the racial reckoning of the George Floyd protests last summer. San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh acknowledged that during his brief opening remarks.

Police union president Danny Diaz said his team came to work with open communication.

“Our team and I are here to bargain in good faith,” Diaz said. “The objective here is to get the best contract that we can get the benefits the city, the citizens and our members.”

Both sides will debate for at least 60 days and extend the discussions every two weeks after that if needed.

The city has listed goals of altering an 180-day rule of when an officer can face discipline for infractions and how far back an officers previous conduct can be included when disciplinary actions are levied by the police chief.

Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez, who is leading the negotiations for the city, said the majority of SAPD officers act in good conduct.

“They provide services to our community with compassion and integrity,” Villagomez said. “However there are a few officers that violate those policies and procedures and we want to hold them accountable.”

Currently, if 180 days pass after an infraction happens and it goes undiscovered, the officer can no longer be disciplined for it. The city wants to delay the start of the 180-day rule from when an incident happens to when the chief of police learns about it.

The union’s chief negotiator Ron DeLord argued that the 180-day rules doesn’t restrict an officer from facing consequences of crimes that may have been committed, but instead protects the officer from having offenses stacked against them.

“There seems to be this misconception constantly in the media that all of these officers are getting away with misconduct because of the 180 days,” DeLord said. “I’m not aware… of anything in the last 20 or 30 years of anybody not being disciplined because of the 180-day rule.”

DeLord added that there are potentially two cases in San Antonio and Austin where an officer was not disciplined but noted that those were due to procedural rules.

One specifically being the termination of SAPD Officer Matthew Luckhurst who was fired — which was later overturned — for an incident involving a feces sandwich. He was later fired over a separate incident and did not get his job back.

The city’s first assistant attorney Liz Provencio told DeLord discovery rules should apply to infractions that are not crimes, but not small procedural offences like being late.

“You shouldn’t have to rise to the level of trying to find criminal aspects to somebody’s conduct in order for a discovery rule to apply,” Provencio said.

An officer can only have a certain number of years worth of infractions used against them when under a disciplinary review: 10 years for drug and alcohol violations; five years for intentional violence violations; and two years for other misconduct. Anything after that cannot be considered when the chief levies any disciplinary decisions.

That’s another item the city wants to change where an officer's entire slate of misconduct can be considered. To which DeLord countered that provisions like that protect officers that could be targeted by the department.

“If the department is after you they can then start fishing for violations of minor things which happened two or three years ago,” DeLord said.

If an officer is fired or suspended under the existing contract, they have the right to appeal to a third party arbitrator and have the police chief’s decision overturned. The city wants an arbitrator to still be available to officers to review disciplinary decisions but not have the authority to change them.

Villagomez said officers who are terminated for wrongdoings — like making racist comments — are not officers the city wants in its police department.

“Those officers don’t represent the values of SAPD — excessive use of force, employees that have been terminated for that reason and are reinstated back, those are not officers that we want to have back on the force and we don’t have a choice as an employer, we have to take them back,” she said.

The contract dictates more than just discipline, it includes healthcare, wages, pay increases and many other agreements between the city and union.

Previous police contract negotiations in 2015 and 2016 stalled for more than a year and went into evergreen as the city and union could not come to terms with healthcare and an evergreen clause that allows the previous contract to continue after it expires.

Both the city and union have a ticking clock of the May election where a ballot initiative to rescind collective bargaining for the police union is at the hands of voters. Should voters support repealing collective bargaining and a contract is not in place, it could alter the process of how both sides move forward.

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