In San Antonio municipal races, police reform is a touchy topic

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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.

To read more, visit The San Antonio Express-News, where the article originally published