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Democrat and Republican lawmakers set aside deep partisan divisions on Tuesday to meet with San Antonio and Austin police union leaders and begin work on an “action plan” to address law enforcement reform and other root issues behind Black Lives Matter protests across the country.
State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) joined U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Austin), State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA) President Mike Helle, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday, and other union members at SAPOA headquarters for a meeting that was closed to media with the exception of brief video and photo opportunities.
The goal was to create a proposal that not only addresses the entire “law enforcement apparatus,” including the criminal justice system, Gervin-Hawkins said, but it also will explore ways to improve the underlying causes of poverty and crime, including access to education, the digital divide, and business and economic development.
“We want systemic change,” Gervin-Hawkins told reporters after the meeting. “We don’t want knee jerk reactions. We’re not involved in emotion. What we’re about is how we’re going to improve the quality of life. Not only just for African Americans … but the entire community. We want to make sure that law enforcement is embraced and respected by our community and vice versa.”
The meeting comes on the heels of increased calls nationally to defund the police. Locally, groups such as Fix SAPD are creating petitions to repeal Chapters 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code that would change stipulations in hiring, firing, and disciplining police officers. It also would address the collective bargaining rights that empower police unions.
“That’s going to be complicated,” Gervin-Hawkins said. It’s not so much about “defunding” police entirely, rather “how we reimagine policing in our communities. … Having that seat at the table is critical if we’re going to make some change.”
Defunding the police is a nonstarter, Roy said. “What we ought to be doing is making sure that police have the tools they need to carry out their job to secure the communities of San Antonio, Austin, the State of Texas. And then be working together to figure out what we can do to build bridges across communities to make sure that we’ve got the right programs in place.”
Helle warned that San Antonio City Council and other local municipalities should be careful about what they “defund,” as most protocols are in place to protect lives – not frivolously spend money.
“There is a balance that they’re going to have to come up with,” he said. “Be careful that you’re not taking something away as part of that thread that potentially [leads to] someone [getting] hurt or killed.”
Helle said removing the ability to bargain would strip away the ability to improve the disciplinary process.
“All these issues, fundamentally, can be addressed at the bargaining table – that’s what the process is there for,” Helle said.
Casady took a broader view and acknowledged that protesters are not just about talking about police reform – they’re talking about jobs, education, gentrification, and more. “We have huge issues that are not related to law enforcement.”
While the lawmakers intend to work with other groups during the course of the new couple weeks, Gervin-Hawkins did not indicate when the plan would be complete. But she noted that any plan would take a bipartisan effort to be achieved.