By Megan Stringer
Source San Antonio Express-News
A new police union contract that enhances some disciplinary measures for officers accused of misconduct was approved by a fractured San Antonio City Council Thursday, despite calls from some community members to reject it for not instituting enough reforms.
District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez and District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo voted against the contract with the San Antonio Police Officers' Association. The dissenters — in an 8 to 3 vote — said they heard what the contract's critics were asking for and wanted to echo their concerns that the new agreement doesn't include changes that would address them.
"I will be honoring my commitments by voting no on this contract," Bravo said. "I want to recognize this contract moves in that direction, but it falls short of where we need to be."
Castillo suggested that if there had been more agreement among council members, the city could have achieved more.
"I realize that in a negotiation, we do not get everything we ask for," McKee-Rodriguez said. "However, let me be clear that this contract still misses the mark."
Tension was palpable in the City Council Chamber Thursday, as some local organizers shouted responses to council members' remarks — saying more reform is possible but there wasn't enough political will to make it happen.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was grateful for the political will that the City Council has already demonstrated on public safety and police accountability.
"It's taken a very long time to muster that," Nirenberg said. "That's why I say with confidence that this is a brand new day with regard to public safety contracts."
Misconduct investigations and discipline took center stage in this round of negotiations. Police union contracts have been in the national spotlight since summer 2020, when widespread protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Many seeking police reforms have argued that unions have vast influence over the disciplinary process, sometimes tying cities' hands. Deputy City Manager María Villagómez, who led the city's negotiating team, sought changes to address such concerns.
District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval also expressed reservation about the contract not including enough improvements. But the deal pushes the city in the right direction, she said before she voted to approve it.
"I know we wanna push the envelope further," Sandoval said. "But I feel that any additional ask or negotiation at this point would require the sacrifice of some progress we've already made."
Others agreed that although additional changes are needed, what the city achieved in negotiations was the best deal it can get for now.
"No matter how much we wish that we would get perfection, it's naive of us to assume we'll ever get there," District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez said.
Members of the police union last month overwhelmingly approved the agreement — by 86 percent of those who voted. The new contract will run through September 2026.
The City Council's approval concludes a year-long negotiation process that went more smoothly than that of past contracts. The last agreement expired in September but remained in place under an evergreen clause.
Disciplinary reforms achieved
Although activists hoped for a different outcome, they acknowledged progress in the contract.
Officials focused on reducing the occurrences of an officer being fired for inappropriate conduct only to be reinstated by an arbitrator's decision, City Manager Erik Walsh said.
"That was the point of attack that we zeroed in on," Walsh said.
Under the new contract, an arbitrator can reverse a termination only in cases where the chief fails to prove an officer's conduct is detrimental to the department.
Also under the new deal, an officer's past disciplinary record can be considered in issuing new discipline. The prior contract included limitations on that.
Another key change is the timeline in which an officer must be disciplined. The police chief now has 180 days from when he initially knew or should have known about an incident — instead of 180 days from the date of the alleged misconduct — to impose discipline.
The city also obtained adjustments to the investigative process under internal affairs for officers accused of misconduct.
Police officers must now be informed 24 hours before internal affairs questions them — down from 48 hours under the prior contract.
During an interview led by internal affairs staff, an officer can review statements, video recordings, audio recordings and photographs regarding the incident. Now, however, the officer won't be able to view statements or recordings from other officers being investigated.
Officers also aren't able to take copies of "interrogatories" — written questions that police officers used to be able to take home to review and return at a later date.
Discipline isn't the only area revised. The contract budgets wage increases that make San Antonio police officers the second-highest paid in the state behind Austin.
The 2,370 officers covered under the contract will receive wage increases of 3.5 percent in fiscal 2023 and 2024 and 4 percent in fiscal 2025 and 2026. Each officer will receive a lump sum payment equal to 2 percent of his or her annual salary within 30 days. In fiscal 2020, the most recent data available, the average salary for uniform police officers was $74,154.
The contract also adds a new family leave benefit of up to 160 hours, or four weeks, of leave after the birth, fostering or adoption of a child.
Activists sought civilian review board reform
A San Antonio nonprofit that works to improve police accountability had asked the City Council to reject the new police union contract, saying some activists' top desires had not been met — namely, a more independent civilian review board.
"Although we have made great strides in police discipline in this contract, there are still several key demands made by the community that remained absent throughout contract negotiations and now," said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA.
ACT 4 SA consists of former organizers behind San Antonio's Proposition B, a proposed charter amendment on the ballot last year that called for stripping the police union of its right to collectively bargain with the city. It was narrowly defeated.
Other organizations, including the Texas Organizing Project, joined them in calling for the City Council to reject the contract.
Tomas focused on at least two issues that she said the deal doesn't address. One is that officers can still use discretionary, or vacation, days in lieu of an unpaid suspension.
The other is that the contract governs San Antonio's civilian police review board, known locally as the Complaint and Administrative Review Board, or the Citizen Action Advisory Board.
The board consists of seven uniformed officers and seven civilians who hear investigations of misconduct complaints made against police officers, use of force and more. The City Council approved new appointments to the board last week.
ACT 4 SA organizers want to see the review board removed from the union contract so that the city can create a more independent office of civilian oversight.
Nationally, police accountability activists have focused on such civilian oversight boards, arguing that officers retain too much influence over them. A fall 2020 study by the The Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University found that San Antonio's police oversight board lacks the authority it needs to be effective.
At the height of the 2020 protests, at the urging of Nirenberg, city officials said a change to the board would be one priority in the union contract negotiations.
"At one point, it was on the list of possible priorities headed into contract negotiations, but fell off for some unknown reason," Tomas said.
Nirenberg said Thursday that revisions to the review board were not part of the city's negotiating priorities. He instead focused on another outcome.
"To make sure that officers who are disciplined for egregious misconduct had their disciplinary actions upheld," Nirenberg said. "The CARB process was immaterial to making that happen."
If the City Council had disapproved the new contract, the city and union would have had to resume negotiations, eventually leading to another vote by police union members.
"This is a vote on a contract that I believe is a fundamental change to what we've seen," Nirenberg said. "A contract that is fiscally responsible, that is transparent, and that is accountable."
Staff writer Emilie Eaton contributed to this report.
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