Home Zone 8 - Southside South Side District 3 councilwoman wants SAPD revamp

South Side District 3 councilwoman wants SAPD revamp

Concerns raised over diversity on the force, police contract, recruiting

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Black Lives Matter protesters march through the streets of downtown and the near-South Side in early June. Photo courtesy of Ryan Vestil/HRV Images

A South Side councilwoman is among those calling for reforms at the San Antonio Police Department as widespread protests decry authoritarian brutality and unequal justice.

City politicos — among them District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran — seek new ways to engage the public and address racial prejudice, as well as examine how law-enforcement agencies serve communities.

Leaders at City Hall including Viagran are asking SAPD to further diversify its uniformed patrols, retool recruiting criteria and upgrade sensitivity training.

Officials also proposed zero tolerance for sworn personnel where domestic violence is concerned, and creating more resources so officers can get help if they are stressed mentally or have witnessed a colleague displaying discrimination.

Viagran said, “We just need to do a better job of keeping each other in check and ensuring everybody that we’re each other’s keeper.”

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales recommended rethinking the Police Department’s hiring and promotional practices.

“If we’re looking for real reform, there has to be a change in the way the (police) leadership works.”

But activists must wait for City Hall to take the next steps. Before considering a resolution, the council in August will review the city’s draft Fiscal Year 2021 budget.

Meanwhile, protesters railing against what they say is systematic racism among police, as well as other societal ills, made their presence known on the South Side in June.

Nearly 40 demonstrators marched down South Flores Street, from Moore’s Feed & Seed Store to R&J Saloon, calling for defunding or reforming SAPD.

Participants also opposed socioeconomic segregation, disproportionate imprisonment of people of color, and detention centers and tactics along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“I’m brown and my family members deserve to live,” Selina Marroquin told supporters at R&J Saloon.

Since late May, San Antonio and other cities nationwide have experienced numerous demonstrations following the death of Houston native George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police after officers were called to investigate allegations of a counterfeit bill.

Most rallies and marches back the Black Lives Matter movement, and denounce the killing of African Americans by law-enforcement officers over the years.

Activists are demanding Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales reopen cases of Marquise Jones, Charles Roundtree and Antronie Scott, who all died during encounters with peace officers. Gonzales has rebuffed the requests.

Some also are tackling issues such as violence against women, LGBTQ discrimination, and statues and symbols seen as representing white supremacy.

As for the latter, the city removed a Christopher Columbus statue from a downtown park. The likeness, a donation from the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, was taken down after District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño and the society arrived at an agreement to give the carving back to the group.

The park’s name, which honors the explorer, is changing to Piazza Italia Park.

In addition, council members expressed concern after SAPD used rubber bullets, tear gas and more to squelch May 30 and June 2 downtown unrest and vandalism during protests.

“Civic engagement is crucial to our democracy, and community voices are particularly important as we develop policies related to public-safety procedures,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

Reformers propose revamping the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the San Antonio Police Officers Association, saying it complicates disciplining or firing rogue officers.

The same advocates also asked SAPD to adopt a ban on choke holds and other use-of-force policies recommended by the nationwide 8 Can’t Wait campaign.

In some quarters, activists urge police departments to defund or outright disband.

Police Chief William McManus said the union contract, which expires in 2021, could be improved.

But defunding or disbanding SAPD is “a little bit unrealistic,” he has said.

“It’s something that the council would have to take into consideration,” the chief added.

Regarding the 8 Can’t Wait measures, McManus said, “I am the police chief and I have authority to make those changes, but I would not make them in a vacuum.”

SAPOA President Mike Helle denounced Floyd’s killing, but said it’s unfair to paint all police as loose cannons, racists or unaccountable to the law.

Helle also disputes assertions the current contract prevents more aggressive discipline against controversial officers.

In a letter to Nirenberg, he said it’s “not the union’s job to protect members from the consequences of illegal or wrongful conduct.”

Some critics feel part of the $479 million the municipality spends on police yearly should be reallocated to programs to reduce poverty and domestic violence, and expand mental health care.

On June 25, the council considered a resolution where the city would pledge to close disciplinary loopholes in the next police pact, enhance transparency and accountability for the force, and seek a “comprehensive and holistic investment” in public safety.

The U.S. House of Representatives in June passed sweeping Justice in Policing Act reforms, which face an uncertain future in the U.S. Senate.

“Recent killings have made all the more important asserting that Black Lives Matter and responding in a meaningful way to wrongdoing,” U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement.

Organizers noted they’re just getting started.

“We must keep putting pressure on our elected officials for change to happen,” the Young Ambitious Activists group posted on its Facebook page.

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