Police Union's Proposed Contract Looks To Whitewash Officers' Disciplinary Records
from the revisionist-history dept
Touched on briefly during our rundown of police unions demanding better pay for better behavior and accountability was the San Antonio Police Officers Association’s (SAPOA) demand that the city should be willing to raise wages if it really expected its officers to perform their duties without veering into abuse or misconduct.
Part of what’s keeping a deal from being struck between the city and the union is the amount of money on the table. This gives the union the appearance of holding the city’s safety hostage until its demands are met. That may not be an entirely fair characterization (there’s some “hostage-taking” on the other side as well), but there’s something far more worrying in the proposed contract that’s keeping this from being resolved.
The San Antonio police union wants changes to disciplinary procedures that would effectively whitewash past misconduct by officers. Michael Barajas, writing for the San Antonio Current, takes a close look at the controversial clause, and how it’s likely to allow bad officers to not only stay employed longer, but possibly rise through the ranks as well.
At issue is the deal SAPOA and Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office negotiated this past summer to put an end to years of litigation over an evergreen clause in the union’s previous contract, which the city in court had argued was unconstitutional. Only recently, however, has police reform come to dominate discussions around the deal. As the Express-News first reported, Saldaña explained in an email to Taylor’s office last month why he wouldn’t vote on a negotiated contract that contained disciplinary procedures he called unacceptable.
Saldaña’s opposition to the agreement is rooted in disciplinary procedures outlined in Article 28 of the contract, which is set to go before council for approval next week. Under those rules, department officials and arbitrators hearing a case of officer misconduct won’t always get to consider an officer’s full disciplinary history when deciding what punishment to give. As it currently stands, if Chief William McManus wants to discipline an officer, he can’t cite as justification any drug- or alcohol-related violations more than 10 years old; infractions involving “intentional violence” only follow a cop for five years; any other disciplinary action only shows up for two years. If an officer is suspended for three days or less, the department, per the contract, automatically lowers the suspension to a “written reprimand” after a couple of years. Local activists calling for police reform say the policy amounts to government-sanctioned falsification of records.
The passage of time may alter perceptions, but it shouldn’t be allowed to alter facts. That’s what the union’s proposal would do: rewrite disciplinary records after the fact. There will be no such thing as a “permanent record” for the city’s officers. With enough years on the force, every disciplined officer will morph into someone better-behaved than they actually are.
Of course, union president Mike Helle thinks this is a perfectly acceptable way to handle misconduct issues. He claims this clause levels the disciplinary playing field. He wonders why a 10-year officer with a few minor infractions should be treated more harshly than a rookie with no prior incidents when punished for identical acts of misconduct.
It should go without saying (but apparently Helle actually needs to hear it) that those with more seniority should be screwing up less and should receive harsher punishments than those without as much experience. It’s not as though the current disciplinary process prevents supervisors from considering multiple factors and exercising personal discretion when handing down punishments. Helle just wants to ensure that the longer someone’s on the force, the more likely they are to escape severe punishment.
In practice, the union’s suggested change would play out like this:
As Express-News columnist Brian Chasnoff wrote last week, Saldaña has seized on the case of one former SAPD officer convicted of raping a teenager on duty to highlight the disciplinary policy’s troubling implications. More than two years before Jackie Neal pleaded no contest to “improper sexual activity with a person in custody,” he was reprimanded for having sex with an 18-year-old high school student he was tasked with supervising in the department’s youth police explorer program. For that, he received a three-day suspension—which, if you follow the department’s disciplinary policies, would have been changed to a written reprimand by the time he was accused of pulling someone identified only as Jane Doe in court records over on the south side, handcuffing her and raping her in the back of his police SUV.
The officer ended up being convicted and having to surrender his peace officer’s license. But what about those whose misconduct investigations are handled completely internally? If the union’s plan was in place, the officer’s file would have shown nothing more than a written reprimand — hardly indicative of past issues with sexual misconduct.
Helle calls the councilman’s opposition to the whitewashing clause the “tantrum” of a “spoiled child.” But he glosses over the fact that the union is still threatening to hold its breath until it gets its way. Helle claims he can’t change the clause without undoing current negotiations and possibly ending up in court. That seems unlikely to be the only outcome of removing the stipulation. Occam’s Razor (and columnist Michael Barajas) says the union boss just doesn’t want to remove the clause as it gives the union much more leverage when representing officers during disciplinary hearings.
What it doesn’t do, however, is any favors for the public, which will be asked to pay the salaries of bad officers and underwrite the retconning of their permanent records.