Mayor Ivy Taylor’s Council on Police-Community Relations met for the first time Wednesday afternoon to begin discussions on how to improve policing in San Antonio, especially among communities of color.
The council’s nearly three dozen members – which include civic and religious leaders, politicians, and police union members – shared their perspectives on the matter in a meeting closed to media at Sam Houston High School.
City and County officials including Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, and Police Chief William McManus, among others, also took part in the private discussion.
“I’m glad that we structured it the way that we did because it gave everyone the opportunity to get to know each other,” Taylor told members of the media after the meeting, “… to give everyone a chance to share their perspectives and some of their expectations and give us a chance to start building relationships, which I think really will be key to us having the tough conversations that will be necessary in relation to making continuous improvement with our police community-relations.”
Taylor said the council hasn’t decided whether the next meeting, which will take place in the next few weeks, will be public and open to media or not. “I think it likely will be, because I don’t think it will be the same type of format,” she said.
“We’ll be more focused on some of the more substantive issues, but I really am focused on the engagement of the invited members of the council as far as developing a plan and some action steps for moving forward.”
A main point in Wednesday’s meeting, Taylor added, was strengthening ties between law enforcement and the neighborhood residents they police. Having a cop who is stationed in a certain area interact more with the area residents in a positive way and build relationships with them could minimize fear and misunderstanding on both sides.
The police-community relations council was created in response to community criticism and concern over fatal police shootings of local black men in the past few years. The same issue on a national scale has concerned and resonated with a large portion of the San Antonio community. Additionally, City Council recently approved a contract with the San Antonio Police Officers Association that was criticized by many citizens, as well as Councilmen Rey Saldaña (D4) and Ron Nirenberg (D8), for lacking accountability measures for police officers.
One of the main goals of the council is to find ways to effectively address the issue of accountability for cops, and identify and address other factors that have led to a distrust of local law enforcement.
Wednesday’s meeting, which some said got emotional at times, was an opportunity for both sides of the issue to hear each other out in a structured setting, LaHood said.
“What we’re trying to do in this type of setting is to attack this issue not only from a law enforcement side … but also the community side. This is not a one-sided issue, it’s a two-sided issue,” he said. “There was a lot of honest discussion in there, that’s why it was a closed-door meeting, because sometimes it takes iron sharpening iron to get through an issue as serious and deep as this.”
McManus acknowledged that San Antonio is being proactive with the creation of the police-community council, especially since other cities have waited until tensions have boiled over – sometimes violently – to begin to address similar issues. Many have argued the same, saying that the community shouldn’t wait for more conflicts to arise in order to begin repairing the strained relationships between local law enforcement and residents.
Taylor, and others who spoke after the meeting, said that Wednesday’s meeting served as more of an informative introduction into the overall police-community relations issue. Future gatherings will involve working out more concrete work resolutions and a community engagement plan.
“What happened tonight was hearts and minds coming together to diffuse the fear that we are experiencing across the nation and that has crept into San Antonio,” said Police-Community Relations council member Pastor Keely Petty of Bethel International Christian Fellowship.
“We had some of the most brilliant minds in our community that have merged together in one thought and in the spirit of unity to ensure that what we do in this commission is make a powerful impact locally, but also set up a model program that can spread across the nation and even globally.”
Top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor announced the City’s support for an extended high school internship program at a meeting earlier this year. File photo by Lea Thompson.