Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Over the past few years, the public has witnessed the vigorous debate regarding the police contract. While we have come into agreement over the increase in pay and benefits for our police officers, we have dropped the ball on ensuring our police force is held accountable when officers act irresponsibly. Our officers deserve to be paid adequately for putting their lives on the line every day. However, they should also be held to a higher standard of accountability through the police contract.
It is not enough to say that I do not support the contract without offering a solution. What I want to do is propose a second alternative, where we not only vote on a contract that is good for our officers, their salaries, and their health care, but also a contract that is good for public trust.
It is indefensible to retain language that automatically alters and limits the use of police discipline records. We must eliminate Article 28, Section 19. Council should vote “no” on this contract in order to address the language regarding discipline and then ask the union for a second vote. We can complete this process in three weeks and vote on a revised contract before the end of September and the start of the new fiscal year. This is the right thing to do for our police department and the public.
Here’s some background information for those who haven’t been following San Antonio contract negotiations over the last three years: Council has known about proposed changes to the contract language meant to increase accountability since 2014.
Why haven’t you heard about it until now? With salaries and health care taking up all the air in the room, the changes to Article 28, Section 19 were always seen as a no-brainer. Who can defend language that stands to benefit only a small number of officers with a discipline record to hide? It was only until a mediated settlement was announced in July that the entire council learned that the mayor and the president of the police union struck a deal without accountability reform.
Improving accountability should not be about taking sides; we all have a stake in strengthening the accountability of our police department. Choosing to have these tough conversations will never endanger our relationship with the police community as long as we come to the table with the best of intentions. I suppose I could have stayed silent, but in retrospect, that’s exactly why previous contracts with our police union have turned into unfair deals for the community and taxpayers. These conversations strengthen our commitment to become a better city.
I would like to remind the council of the gravity of our decision when we vote on this contract: Sanctioning the falsification of officer discipline records is not in the public interest or the interest of our police department. If we vote for this contract, we must hope and pray that no officer steps out of bounds and takes advantage of our approved language. It will be our names on a contract that prevent the chief or arbitrator from using an officers complete record for discipline.
We cannot continue to fall victim to the strong arm police union tactics that worked on previous mayors and councils. We have compromised on salaries, we have compromised on healthcare benefits, but we were completely rejected from changes that would make our police force more transparent and accountable. Instead of viewing this as a future council’s problem, we should see this as an opportunity to step up as leaders today. I call on the mayor and police union president to step up and amend this critical component.
I am deeply disappointed that this conversation on police accountability has devolved into political attacks and distractions. The residents of San Antonio deserve nothing less than our best, especially when it comes to their safety and their livelihoods. We cannot plead ignorance on this issue anymore. The public is watching intently, and it is never too late to do what is right. The question is, will we be brave enough to do the right thing?
And to Union President Helle, I ask again: Who benefits when three day suspensions are automatically reduced to written reprimands? Why shouldn’t an officer’s entire record, since the day of taking his/her oath, be usable by the police chief or arbitrator to determine discipline? These are questions that have not yet been answered.
Top image: Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) leads a press conference showing City support of San Antonio Police Chief William McManus on the count of Mayor Taylor’s absence. Photo by Scott Ball.