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Two weeks ago, Ojiyoma Martin had no idea how important chapters 143 and 174 of Texas Local Government Code were to her. Now, they’re at the center of the movement she leads called Fix SAPD that aims to dismantle the local police union with an eye toward reform.
Martin, 33, told the Rivard Report this week she will soon launch a signature petition campaign to repeal Chapter 143, which she said establishes a “corrupt” appeals process for fired or otherwise disciplined officers. “End 143” is part of a broader movement, in collaboration with other groups, to change the culture, funding, and functions of the City and its police department. Martin also hopes to repeal or change Chapter 174, which gives the police the right to negotiate a contract and set its own terms on how officers are hired, fired, and appeal the chief of police’s decisions.
Changing the police union contract alone – negotiations are slated for next year – is not enough “to change the culture, to change the tide,” she said. “We have to get rid of this union.”
The police union contract includes an eight-year evergreen clause that keeps the terms in place. While police don’t receive base pay increases during that time, there is no legal mechanism that the City can use to force the union to negotiate.
Fix SAPD is one of several groups that emerged within the past two weeks as the city enters its 12th straight day of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis.
“I’m just moving in the direction that I know will keep my children safe,” said Martin, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria to live with her mother and father when she was 11.
“It wasn’t even a race thing,” she said. “I wanted to approach it from a corruption standpoint. This is corrupt. These laws are corrupt. So what happens when you have corrupt laws? You’re going to have corrupt discipline, corrupt actions, corrupt policing. If we can change these corrupt laws and make them more just, then … policing will be more just. It just seemed like going after that was where I needed to be.”
The State Chapter 143 – which governs police hiring, promotions, discipline, and records – was adopted by San Antonio voters in 1947. Layered on top of that is Chapter 174, the collective bargaining statute, which was adopted in 1974 and allows the local contract to supersede or supplant civil service laws outlined in Chapter 143. Not all cities have adopted these rules, but both can be repealed by a local vote.
Because of strict rules surrounding what behavior can be punished, what previous behavior can be considered when the chief disciplines an officer, as well as what a third-party arbitrator, can consider on appeal, roughly 67 percent of officers that Police Chief William McManus fires get reinstated.
“There are protections that have been built in [the local and state systems] … that tip the scales from a disciplinary standpoint,” City Manager Erik Walsh told City Council during its meeting Wednesday.
Those scales are tipped in the police union’s favor, Walsh said. Final disciplinary decisions are typically appealed by an arbitrator under contract and state rules. Arbitrators historically are more lenient in disciplinary matters than chiefs, in addition to overturning disciplinary decisions based on procedural issues even in cases where the employee admits to a violation.
Some Council members, including Roberto Treviño (D1) and Jada Andrews-Sullivan, suggested that Council endorse a resolution similar to one recently approved in Austin that highlighted the need for reform.
“It is our duty and our right to the City of San Antonio to step up and ask for repeal if we want to see changes,” said Andrews-Sullivan (D2), the only black Council member. She appreciated the dialogue surrounding reform, but noted that the City – and protesters – have known where specific change is needed for years.
In contract negotiations that started in 2014 for the current contract, the City attempted to adjust the disciplinary processes. That push was overshadowed during negotiation sessions by the Council’s priority to reduce the enormous financial burden of rapidly rising health care costs. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who then served as District 8 councilman, and former Councilman Rey Saldaña were the only Council members who voted against the current contract in 2016 that left disciplinary procedures untouched.
“There have to be consequences for misconduct and there are right now, but they have to be certain and they must be final,” McManus said. “If they’re not, we get police officers back in the department that need to be fired.”
Changes to State and local rules need to be pushed “as hard as we can,” he said. “The time for that to happen is now if there ever was one.”
Though he stopped short of commenting directly on chapters 174 and 143, McManus said he would support reform at the state level and cited specific articles in the police union contract (28 and 29, which deal with disciplinary and arbitration processes).
Before a vote can occur on one or both of those chapters, voters have to get it on a ballot through a certified signature petition process. Organizers face an uphill battle to get enough signatures for one or both; the deadline to file a petition that would trigger a referendum on the November ballot is Aug. 17. However, signatures are valid for 180 days after they are signed. It’s possible that such a petition could be added to the May 1, 2021, ballot when mayor and council member elections will take place.
To get a repeal of Chapter 174 on the ballot, 19,337 verified signatures (5 percent of the number of votes cast in the November 2018 election) will be required. For Chapter 143, 10 percent of registered voters or 78,415.
For perspective, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) and other groups took two months to collect and submit more than 144,000 petition signatures for the paid sick leave ordinance in 2018.
Martin said she’s looking into ways to make the petition (or petitions) available online.
“We will do this,” Martin said. “[These laws] are based on the people. We don’t need the mayor. We don’t need the city manager. We don’t need a single person on the Council. It’s literally our vote. Nothing more but our voices. That will change our lives in San Antonio. We can fix SAPD. We are taking back our city from the union. they have no power over us. not today, not ever.”
The deadline for the City to receive enough signatures is not yet set for the May election, but the City Clerk needs at least 20 days to verify signatures, and the ballot will be finalized by February 12. That leaves roughly Jan. 18-22 for a deadline to turn in signatures.
“Whether it’s bail reform, police accountability and oversight, divesting from the over-policing and militarization of our police force to instead making investments our community needs and deserves, TOP is committed to working alongside these young leaders to dismantle the criminal legal system as we know it,” Michelle Tremillo, executive director of TOP.
These rules in place to protect officers from false accusations, said Mike Helle – who presides over the San Antonio Police Officers Association, the local police union – in remarks last week. Police officers report bad behavior of fellow officers all the time, Helle said. “It has a way of self-correcting. Those types of people don’t survive in our police department.”
But clearly relying on the police to police themselves is not enough, Martin said, and neither is the contract or state law.
As conversations continue around the “defund the police” movement – which calls for diverting resources from police departments – advocates and elected officials are looking into strategies to address the underlying causes of crime.
“If we seek justice for anyone … then we must be ready to work on all fronts,” Nirenberg said Wednesday.
If we simply throw more police officers at hotspots of crime, that will result in a “never-ending cycle” of crime, negative police interactions, and poverty, Nirenberg said. Better infrastructure, education, workforce development, and healthcare should play a role in the city’s calculus to solve the underlying issues of poverty and racism.
Making sure good police officers aren’t harmed by disciplinary rules “can only happen after we’ve removed the union,” Martin said. Once the system has been dismantled, it can be rebuilt with incentives for good behavior rather than rewards for bad behavior.
She wants to see a world where officers get bonuses for using the least amount of force, for handling crisis incidents with de-escalating tactics, for going to therapy.
More than 36 percent of the City’s general fund goes toward policing, especially with the coronavirus pandemic reducing the City’s revenue by an expected $200 million in 2020. Walsh estimated that about 80 percent of that spending is mandated through the police union contract.
The City spends 64.2 percent of its discretionary funds on public safety, including firefighters and emergency medical responders. Council has vowed not to spend more than 65 percent of its general fund on public safety.
Martin doesn’t consider herself an activist, and she only recently started learning about local politics and state law.
“My campaign is more about education,” she said. “I want to arm people with political bricks. I want them to know because I was sitting here in the dark, unaware just saying, ‘Do better politicians. Why aren’t you doing this, why aren’t you doing that?’”