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Why Is SAPD Overseeing The Program Created To Analyze Its Own Officers?

Police and Activists face off during a May protest
Kathleen Creedon
Texas Public Radio
Police and activists face off during a May 2020 protest in San Antonio.

The San Antonio Police Department is analyzing itself.

In a move that raises questions about impartiality, the city reorganized a city team reviewing data over how the police interacts with the public, placing them back in the police chain of command and reporting to Police Chief William McManus.

Last September — in the wake of racial justice protests spurred by the death of George Floyd — the city committed to analyze how the police interact with citizens and look at foundational problems dealing with race.

“Calls for police reform have brought a sharper focus to how equity and justice is reflected in our institutions, our values and our spending,” said Erik Walsh, San Antonio city manager in the city’s budget documents.

Erik Walsh, city manager, looks on as citizens relay their frustrations with police in a June 2020 council hearing
Joey Palacios
Erik Walsh, city manager, looks on as citizens relay their frustrations with police in a June 2020 council hearing

The city committed to diverting three civilian positions from SAPD to the Innovation Office to create a Statistics and Reporting unit to increase transparency.

“(The Unit) will study and document data related to calls for service, community interactions, and various other performance related metrics. The positions will be reorganized into the Office of Innovation,” said the adopted budget.

That’s a long way of saying they were evaluating how police interact with the public — specifically people of color — and those evaluations would be made outside of police influence.

According to city staff after hiring the three positions in March, the unit was removed from the Office of Innovation and placed in the Information Technology Service Department, ITSD.

“The team was moved to ITSD and reports to the chief (of police),” said Brian Dillard, director of the Office of Innovation.

Dillard declined to answer questions on why the change was made, referring TPR to SAPD.

“In further review of the role of these positions, their work is closely tied to the ITSD Department,” said Craig Hopkins, director of ITSD, in a statement provided by a city spokesperson.

The statement said the move allowed the team — under ITSD’s Chief Data Officer — to access data from police and other departments like Metro Health. The CDO is also in charge of other open data projects.

“Open data is an important cornerstone to broader government transparency efforts,” said Hopkins.

The city's initial statement did not address questions around the team reporting to Police Chief McManus.

In a follow up statement, received after publication, city staff said they didn't agree with the characterization that the team reported to the Chief of Police.

The city said the Statistics and Reporting unit is one of several "client" programs and this one is embedded in the police and reports to both police and ITSD.

“The employee’s workplan is established by both the central services department and the client department and the employees interact with both departments,” Deputy City Manager Maria Villagomez wrote in an email to TPR.

The city said while the Chief of Police has "some day to day direction" and the program does have dual reporting duties, the Chief Data Officer is overseeing it.

Originally the team was to be independent from reporting to, or taking "day to day" direction from police, according to staff with knowledge who asked for anonymity due to not being authorized to speak publicly.

According to budget documents, the unit was supposed to give a report on its findings to city council by April of this year. No report has been given as of the publication of this article.

The city said the budget was actually referring to the "Police Services Review" work it is doing. The Statistics and Reporting Unit is part of that according to the statement. Additional time was added so the review could include community engagement.

In addition UTSA has partnered with the city to analyze police calls for service and will provide a report to a city committee next week.

According to documents presented publicly by city staff, the team was pitched as something that could provide "objective analysis" of police interactions.

The question remains how objective a team can be providing analysis when it has "day to day direction" from police brass.

“It’s very troubling for reform activists,” said Ananda Tomas with FixSAPD when told about the change. FixSAPD is a movement currently fighting to strip collective bargaining protections from SAPD through a ballot proposition.

When the city passed its budget in September, it opted not to make cuts to the nearly half billion dollars that goes towards policing. It made the decision not to cut over the vocal opposition of police reform advocates. Opposition that included the council meeting wherein it passed. That council meeting included more than an hour of citizen testimony — much of it attacking the council's decision not to cut. The lack of action at council spurred the formation of FixSAPD in many ways.

The data analysis team was framed by city leaders as a way to increase transparency and accountability. It was a modest reform proposal highlighted by city manager Walsh.

“We will be engaging the entire community to set expectations and get feedback from the entire community through things like reviewing our calls for service and ensuring that we're putting our officers in the encounters that we think that we want to be in or that we should be in,” said Walsh at the September Council meeting.

It is hard to say how transparent and impartial the data will be if the team reviewing and preparing it goes through the department.

In Austin they have an office of police oversight that audits data and prepares reports on issues. In Seattle, an office of the Inspector General exists with unfettered access to police data up to and including crime scenes. Both operate outside of the police chain of command.

“There is an internal bias that can exist,” said Lisa Judge, Inspector General for the City of Seattle.

“The analysis and recommendations of a group inside versus one outside are going to be different,” she said.

Tomas with FixSAPD said it will be hard to trust any analysis that comes out under the current circumstances.

“Everyone is saying ‘why can’t we leave reforms to the negotiation table,’” said Tomas referring to ongoing contract city/SAPD contract negotiations “But the city is backpedaling on this. They backpedaled on being strong on discipline and bringing all our demands to the negotiating table.”

For her, it feels like more of the same.

Editors Note: This story was updated 4/16/21 to include additional comments from the city.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org