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A resolution Thursday that had been set to mark San Antonio City Council’s first legislative step toward meaningful police reform was delayed after hours of testimony from local activists.
The slow wheels of bureaucracy and the largely symbolic resolution, however, were unsatisfactory to many of the dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters who spoke out against the police union’s contract, police brutality, and systemic racism. While some called for immediate action, others said the resolution didn’t involve enough community input.
“[Black people] are dying today,” Jourdyn Jeaux Parks, an organizer with Reliable Revolutionaries, told Council. “We need action today.”
As proposed, the resolution would not have been legally binding but would establish, in writing, the City’s priority of closing problematic disciplinary rules in the next police union contract, to increase police transparency, and find a more holistic way to budget and better provide “public safety” beyond the police department. That resolution will be put on hold until early August, but Council will begin its work on the 2021 budget tomorrow during an all-day work session.
“We’re setting resolutions without the community seeing it,” said Celeste Brown, a local activist who used to work for former Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw (D2). “I am disappointed in every single one of you.”
City Manager Erik Walsh and Nirenberg confirmed that groups outside City Hall provided input on the resolution. Council is slated to review comments gathered from public listening sessions hosted over the last two week in August.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), a staunch supporter of public engagement, first proposed delaying the vote.
“If you’re angry, you have every right to be angry,” Sandoval said, noting that calls for reform have been echoing throughout history for decades. “We’re telling you now, we’re drawing that line in the sand. … This resolution is an effort to do that. Clearly we missed the mark a little bit.”
She encouraged the protesters to participate in future committee meetings and make appointments with her and other Council members.
This is the same debate that brought Black Lives Matter protests to City Council chambers in 2016, Mayor Ron Nirenberg noted. The details of the police union contract – which was finalized in private – wasn’t made public until June 2016. Council voted 8-2 to approve the contract on Sept. 1, 2016 despite rallies to fix discipliary procedures.
“It does seem rushed, I apologize to my colleagues … but I wanted to strike when the iron was hot because I’ve seen this movie before,” Nirenberg said. “And I see how the union politics can get its fangs into a city council to prevent reform from happening.”
Among other problematic clauses, the contract gives officers accused of misconduct access to evidence before they are questioned, establishes a six-month statute of limitations for what they can be fired or punished for, and limits the information that an arbitrator can consider when deciding whether to overturn a suspension or termination handed down by the chief of police.
Although there are no formal public hearings scheduled during the month of July – while City staff is busy preparing a draft budget for Council to consider in August – several Council members and the mayor assured residents that they will be working all month and available to take meetings.
“We’re going to be working every day,” Nirenberg said, adding that he will call a more formal meeting if it’s needed.
Brown said the delay will be worth it if they “hold true to the agreement to meet with organizers throughout July.”
She doesn’t see momentum surrounding this movement slowing down at all.
“I’ve been doing this work since 2014, and I’m not tired yet,” she said. “We may not see as many [large-scale] protests, but the folks who are actually doing this work [on reallocating police funding and the police union contract], we’re just getting started. … Our nation as a whole is on the precipice of something great.”
The current contract expires in September 2021, but an evergreen clause means the union doesn’t have to negotiate for eight years.
A signature petition campaign aimed at repealing chapter 143 and 174 of the Texas Local Government Code will soon launch, according to Fix SAPD organizers. It’s unclear yet how that would impact the current contract. It’s a legal question the Rivard Report has posed to City attorneys.
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.
On many occasions, the protesters have pleaded with Council to show solidarity and support of such efforts and with the Black community.
When Kimiya Factory asked City Council members and the mayor to kneel or raise a fist – in solidarity and to remember a few of the Black men killed by police in San Antonio – Marquise Jones in 2014, Antronie Scott in 2016, and Charles “Chop” Roundtree in 2018. Each Council member did so, except for Councilman Clayton Perry (10).
It was a rare solemn moment in chambers on Thursday, that later led to such chants as “hands up don’t shoot” and “no justice, no peace.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg rolled back his chair to kneel. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) took a knee and held her folded hands on her forehead. Councilmembers in the chamber and others who attended the meeting via videoconference raised their fists.
Perry declined to do either.
Factory has helped organize the weeks of local protests after a black man, George Floyd, was killed in Minneapolis police officers in May. His death has sparked international protests and calls for reform.
“Perry, are you awake? Perry, are you good? I’m talking to you,” Factory said later.
As a matter of decorum, Council members don’t typically respond to citizens directly while they are speaking. Nirenberg directed Factory to address the full Council.
During his comments later, Perry said the police union and the City should “work together as a team” on reform.
The Rivard Report asked why Perry declined to participate.
“I’m listening to the members of the community who have come to speak at Council and absolutely support all members of the community,” Perry said via text. “Our office is open, and we are willing to speak with and listen to anyone who reaches out to us.”