A handful of San Antonio grassroots groups Jan. 10 gave the city clerk’s office a petition with more than 38,000 signatures, asking the May 6 election ballot include policing-related proposals, including decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession and limiting the enforcement of abortion laws.
Other initiatives proposed by police reform organization ACT 4 SA and fellow petitioner groups include prohibiting police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants; expanding the city’s cite-and-release rules to cover low-level, nonviolent crimes; creating a city staff “justice director” to supervise these; and other new public safety reforms.
City officials said the city clerk’s office has 20 business days - until Feb. 8 - to verify the signatures of a required minimum of 20,000 local registered voters in order to forward to the City Council for potential placement on the May 6 ballot. ACT 4 SA and their community partner groups launched the petition drive in October 2022.
Representatives from the petitioner groups, including Texas Organizing Project and MOVE Texas, arrived at City Hall on Jan. 10 to deliver the signatures, saying their proposals comprise a “justice charter” designed to help save lives and public funds, divert particularly vulnerable community members from the risk of jail time, and shore up the relationship between the San Antonio Police Department and the public.
While chokeholds and no-knock warrants are already banned within the San Antonio Police Department, officers are allowed chokeholds in what they deem a critical situation.
ACT 4 SA officials acknowledged chokeholds and no-knock warrants are already banned within the SAPD.
But incorporating into the city charter such a permanent ban and an expansion of the cite-and-release policy would ensure these practices continue regardless of leadership at City Hall or the police department, the petitioners said.
ACT 4 SA Executive Director Ananda Tomas said the cite-and-release policy has saved Bexar County $4.7 million in jail booking costs.
“We will be saving money, keeping families together, stopping the unnecessary overcrowding of jails, but most of all we will be saving lives through these policies,” Tomas said at a Jan. 10 news conference.
The San Antonio Police Officers Association was quick to criticize the justice charter proposals, saying limiting abortion-related investigations and marijuana decriminalization are state and federal matters.
In the same statement, police union President Danny Diaz said chokeholds should remain a last-resort option for officers who may find themselves in a life-or-death situation.
“This charter wants to stop the use of chokeholds altogether no matter if our officers’ lives are at risk,” Diaz said.
Diaz said the cite-and-release policy was implemented to aid first-time offenders but not repeat offenders, and he expressed concern that expanding the policy will yield more negative effects in the community. He added overall crime in San Antonio was 12.3% higher in 2022 compared with 2021.
“Dangerous criminals and repeat offenders were allowed back in the street in record times,” Diaz said.
The SAPOA also questioned the proposed creation of a city justice director to oversee policing, asking if such a person would be required to have any kind of law enforcement experience and whether the new position would be financially costly to the city.
"Changing the city charter will take life-or-death defense measures off the table, leaving our officers with their hands tied,” Diaz said.
Tomas said completely prohibiting local law enforcement authorities from investigating alleged violators of the state’s abortion laws will reduce a major burden on both providers and their patients.
“These reforms would not only protect women’s rights, but the rights and oaths that our health care providers took to keep their communities safe,” Tomas said.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales while successfully campaigning for re-election in 2022 repeatedly pledged his support for cite-and-release and announced plans to not prosecute alleged state abortion law violators.
City Council has until a state deadline of Feb. 17 to add the justice charter proposals to the local May 6 ballot, which already includes regularly scheduled elections for mayor and all 10 council seats.
Tomas thanked the petitioner groups and those who signed their petition for their support and said the justice charter advocates must work together to educate voters citywide ahead of the May 6 elections.
“San Antonio, our voices will be heard,” she said.