In San Antonio municipal races, police reform is a touchy topic
John “Danny” Diaz, president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, speaks at a rally against Proposition B at Viola’s Ventanas last month. Nearly a year after protests over police brutality gripped the nation and cries for police reform rang out in City Hall, many candidates for San Antonio municipal office are trying to chart a more middle-of-the-road course on police reform. Sensing the popularity of police among municipal voters, several frontrunners and big names running for mayor and City Council are trying to distance themselves from hot buttons pressed by activists tackling police reforms — while not shutting the door entirely on potential changes. Spending less on the police department is mostly off the table as candidates seek to avoid accusations they want to “defund the police” — activists’ shorthand meaning rerouting funds from the police budget to pay for social services such as housing and help for the homeless. But it’s a slogan that has proved a political millstone for candidates. At issue is Proposition B, a measure on the May 1 ballot that would strip the San Antonio police union of its power to bargain with the city for a contract. Too many officers accused of egregious misconduct get off scot-free under the contract, proponents argue — a point contested by union leaders. Numerous young progressive candidates haven’t been shy about throwing their weight behind the ballot measure, including those who took part in summer protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. For these progressives, taking away the San Antonio union’s collective bargaining rights is a surefire way of creating greater accountability for bad officers. “San Antonio has the most crooked police union contract in the nation,” said Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, running to represent District 2 on the city’s East Side. Ditto that for Mark Arthur Vargas Jr., running to fill the District 3 seat on the city’s Southeast Side. “In my opinion, police accountability just should not be up for negotiation,” Vargas said. Some candidates who support Prop B but also would normally support labor rights find themselves taking a somewhat diplomatic approach. “I think that unions are a great thing,” said Pharoah Clark, a Black Lives Matter organizer and candidate for District 2. “But I do think that it’s dangerous to allow a union to have more power than the city when it comes to dealing or enforcing laws that have to deal with bad officers.” In at least one race, Prop B and the police contract are acting as litmus tests for progressive bona fides. District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño is the only sitting councilman who backs Prop B. His opponent Mario Bravo, who works for the national Environmental Defense Fund, has vowed to stay neutral on the measure. Bravo says he wouldn’t vote to accept a contract that doesn’t make drastic changes to how officers accused of misconduct are disciplined. He targeted the “180-day rule,” which gives Police Chief William McManus six months to discover alleged misconduct by an officer. If McManus finds out about the misconduct after that, the chief can’t discipline the officer. The current contract includes that provision, Bravo pointed out, and Treviño voted to approve it in 2016. “What he’s saying today is not consistent with how he’s voted,” Bravo said. For his part, Treviño expressed regret over that vote and says he wouldn’t accept a contract now that doesn’t tighten the reins on officer discipline. “I have a responsibility to ensure that within this contract, we do not allow bad cops to continue to go undisciplined and allowed back on the force,” Treviño said. But other candidates — out of genuine opposition or fear that the proposition could tank their campaigns — have come out against Prop B or at least have telegraphed they don’t support its most immediate effect if passed. Many argue reforms to officer discipline can be achieved without taking away the union’s ability to negotiate for wages and benefits. Phyllis Viagran, the apparent frontrunner in the District 3 race, opposes the ballot measure because she supports labor unions’ collective bargaining rights. Reforming officer discipline, she notes, has taken center stage in the current round of contract negotiations between the city and the police union — something that hasn’t been true in the past. “I think we can iron those things out at the bargaining table,” Viagran said. But there’s consensus on other police matters in District 3. Candidates including Vargas and Viagran have rejected a cut in police spending. The district has long sought a police substation, they note, and still doesn’t have one. Others are tiptoeing around the proposition. In the race for another open seat, District 5 on the West Side, housing advocate Teri Castillo said she supports Fix SAPD, the organization pushing the ballot measure. But Castillo — endorsed by progressive groups including Texas Organizing Project, a big backer of Prop B — stopped short of taking a position on the measure itself. “I believe there does need to be accountability,” Castillo said. “I also believe that there needs to be accountability within a number of city departments. This is on the ballot and it’s up to the voters to decide.” At least two of Castillo’s opponents — Norberto “Geremy” Landin and Marie Crabb — oppose Prop B. Most council members have shied away from weighing in on Prop B for fear that doing so would jeopardize the ongoing contract negotiations. Only two council members seeking another term have taken a firm stance on the proposition: Treviño for and Manny Peláez against. That silence has annoyed police activists and union officials alike. “People want leadership that can take a stand and have a backbone,” said Ananda Thomas, deputy director of Fix SAPD. “Shying away from it is only really shedding a negative light on you.” John “Danny” Diaz, the police union’s newly-minted leader, echoed that — albeit from the other side of the fence. “All we’re seeing is people that don’t want to make a decision one way or the other because they’re afraid of perception, whether it’ll hurt them or help them,” Diaz said. One candidate who has flummoxed both sides is Mayor Ron Nirenberg. In the past, Nirenberg has raised concerns about the proportion of the city’s budget that’s spent on the police department . When he voted against the current police contract as a councilman in 2016, Nirenberg said it didn’t go far enough to rein in costs or make disciplinary reforms that would “expand accountability and ensure public trust.” In a now-infamous June 4, 2020, speech outside of the Bexar County Courthouse, the mayor cast himself as an ally of Black Lives Matter activists protesting police brutality in Floyd’s case and those of several San Antonians killed by San Antonio police. “Hold me accountable … because I’m the mayor of this goddamn city and we’re going to make change together,” Nirenberg said, drawing applause. To police advocates, Nirenberg had clearly sided against them. Mike Helle, then the police union president, deemed the mayor’s use of the word “goddamn” as offensive as the N-word . But as voting neared on Prop B, perhaps the most consequential local measure on policing in decades, Nirenberg dropped a bombshell. In a closed-door meeting last month, the mayor told the head of the police union he supports collective bargaining. Nirenberg has long stopped short of taking a position on the ballot measure, but has said he thinks the city and union can agree to reforms at the bargaining table. After the meeting became public knowledge, Nirenberg insisted he wasn’t weighing in on the ballot measure. To activists, however, that stance took on a different tenor when relayed directly to the union’s leadership. “For somebody to go from ‘I’m the mayor of this city, hold me accountable’ to being silent, it doesn’t leave a good taste in folks’ mouths,” Thomas said. Some observers speculated Nirenberg made the appeal to the police union in an attempt to make it harder for the union to endorse his opponent Greg Brockhouse — a longtime ally and former consultant for the police union, who backed him in 2019. The union so far hasn’t endorsed any mayoral candidate. For his part, Brockhouse took Nirenberg’s meeting as an opportunity to accuse the mayor of playing both sides. “Ron Nirenberg’s whole plan here is to run out the clock, pretend there’s no election, be with everybody, tell everybody ‘I’m with you,’ and then hopefully they don’t talk to each other and then he can win,” Brockhouse said. Disappointment in Nirenberg likely won’t send some police reform advocates running to Brockhouse — a fierce police union ally and opponent of Prop B. But some give Brockhouse credit for at least showing up in potentially hostile settings. The former councilman appeared at a March forum held by the social justice organization Black Freedom Factory, they note, but Nirenberg didn’t. Brockhouse sees a role for activists in police reform efforts in the event he becomes mayor and Prop B fails, he said. As part of a public safety plan he released in March, Brockhouse called for the creation of a mayoral advisory board on policing that includes activists and union leaders that would meet monthly with the mayor. “If you have two candidates and one of the candidates is more willing to have a conversation and is more willing to reimagine a future where advocates have a seat at the table, then I would think that that would be better for the future of the movement that we are trying to continue in this city,” said Kimiya Factory, a local community activist who heads Black Freedom Factory. A representative for the Nirenberg campaign did not return a request for comment. In the past, Nirenberg has cited progress on police reforms made since the summer protests — including banning police use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants and speeding up the process of releasing body camera footage when officers shoot someone or use force. Activists seeking police reform may continue to find themselves frustrated with most candidates on the ballot this year. Polling from the nonprofit Bexar Facts shows a majority of San Antonio residents view the police union as a barrier to holding officers accused of misconduct to account. But the electorate in municipal races skews older and more conservative — demographics less likely to be into police reform. That gives most council candidates little motivation to risk alienating municipal voters. And among major neighborhood groups, it’s rare to find much appetite for any reforms that could potentially reduce the number of officers patrolling the streets. But there’s openness to changes in how officers accused of misconduct are disciplined — even on the more conservative North Side where support for police is high. “(Neighborhood groups’) real issue is the fact that there have been issues with the chief being able to enforce his discipline on bad cops,” said Art Downey, president of the District 9 Neighborhood Alliance. “That certainly is something people want to see fixed.” Whether that translates to support for Prop B remains to be seen. The concept of repealing collective bargaining is likely an “esoteric” one to most voters, Downey said. And voters unfamiliar with the issue could be thrown off by the measure’s knotty and complex language when they encounter it in the voting booth. In neighboring District 10, Councilman Clayton Perry, the council’s only conservative, declined to give his opinion on Prop B because of the contract negotiations. But Perry said he believes police should have the right to collectively bargain with the city and there’s room for improving disciplinary procedures in the contract. His repeat challenger, Ezra Johnson, who lost to Perry in a runoff in 2019, opposes the proposition. “I don’t see how we can accomplish the reforms we need through removal of collective bargaining,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot more that has to be done and I don’t see how that becomes a first step to getting reforms to the disciplinary process we need.” Still, Johnson said, if a contract doesn’t include reforms suggested by Fix SAPD, “or something substantially similar,” he would vote against the contract if elected. While the turnout in city elections does tend to skew older and more conservative, don’t count out an uptick of young people heading to the polls to vote in favor of the Fix SAPD measure, local strategist Demonte Alexander said. “I think it’s going to be close,” Alexander said.