One of the widely discussed changes around San Antonio is a new police policy containing potentially sweeping results.
It’s a law-enforcement program with the catchy name “cite-and-release,” which brings to mind the fishing term “catch-and-release.”
There’s another time-honored phrase that fits just as well — ticketing.
Cite-and-release is old news in other parts of the state. In 2007, the Legislature passed the original statute. It allowed officers to give citations, rather than arrest, offenders for nonviolent misdemeanors, from shoplifting to marijuana possession.
While the cannabis angle gets lots of press, it’s far from the critical element of the law in terms of would-be positives. For police, writing a ticket instead of detaining someone is a potential time-saver. Officers can remain in the field, rather than book suspects into the jail. There’s also the likelihood of decreased court time and docket backlogs, plus lessening jail overcrowding.
Not to mention big financial savings.
All of this doesn’t even account for the other part of the equation – the human factor. It’s rarely cheap to get out of jail. Nonviolent offenders who can’t afford bail may have to choose between costly loans or staying behind bars, neglecting job and family.
Austin, Houston and Dallas already practice cite-and-release. According to a Houston Chronicle report, 49 of Harris County’s 61 law-enforcement agencies had used the policy for a year, collectively saving $27 million while diverting some 3,000 people from jail just on the pot-possession angle.
We were first told cite-and-release was coming to the greater San Antonio area in September 2017, when then-Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood made headlines with his announcement of a bold pilot program.
However, the policy flopped, used in only a handful of cases. Critics said LaHood didn’t partner with many law-enforcement agencies, including the San Antonio Police Department.
After Thanksgiving and midterm elections, SAPD Chief William McManus proclaimed he was working on a new cite-and-release initiative. According to McManus, the city had been conferring since the summer with LaHood, and was continuing to talk with DA-elect Joe Gonzales. The chief suggested City Council might vote on cite-and-release by early 2019.
San Antonio currently utilizes a small cite-and-release program, but it only concerns Class C misdemeanors, mostly traffic violations carrying fines up to $500. The new program would cover Class A and B misdemeanors including possession of marijuana or controlled substances, criminal mischief, theft of service and driving without a license. Class A offenses can result in a maximum of a year in jail and up to $4,000 in fines; a Class B is no greater than 180 days behind bars with not more than a $2,000 hit.
Cite-and-release doesn’t make the penalties disappear. As always, the decision to issue a citation or make an arrest is up to the officer.
San Antonio has made huge investments in its police force. By and large, we have a department we can be proud of, and a good leader in McManus. Let’s hope he does not follow City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who brought him here, when she retires in 2019. But, if he does, as some predict, the cite-and-release program will be part of a positive legacy for McManus.