As the nation reacts to recent shootings of black men by police, San Antonio public officials and community members met Wednesday night to take the pulse of police relations here. It’s difficult to know how candid or productive the meeting was, because it was not open to the media or general public.
Mayor Ivy Taylor created her Council on Police-Community Relations to discuss topics like police accountability, community policing, and transparency. In a news conference after its first meeting, Taylor says the event was held in private with invited participants because she wanted to foster honest discussion.
“It worked very well,” said Taylor. “I think it helped to establish some relationships that were unexpected—and that sets a great foundation for us to work on issues that are difficult, emotional and challenging.”
Taylor spokesperson Leslie Garza said several of the more than 30 group members called with concerns that the meeting would become a publicity stunt if reporters were allowed inside.
“I recommended it be closed to the media, and I did it for a specific reason,” says UTSA criminal justice professor Michael Gilbert, who facilitated Wednesday’s discussion. “We used circle processes last night to get a dialogue going. You can’t have honest dialogue where people are afraid to say what they have to say, they want to say, or they need to say. They won’t necessarily tell their story.”
The group included community leaders, police officers, activists and clergy. Participants sat in a circle, used only first names and spoke only when holding the “speaking stone.” Some shared personal stories of police interactions.
Dr. Gilbert is the executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice and says confidentiality is crucial to these sorts of dialogues working.
Still, Mayor Taylor says some future meetings will likely be open to the public. She formed the group after the City Council approved a new contract between the city and police union earlier this month.
“Given some of the incidents that we’ve had locally, as well as concerns that came up during the discussion and debate about our contract with the police officers association, I really felt it was important for us to try to be proactive—not just wait for something to happen and then have a contentious community meeting,” Taylor said.
Activists like Johnathan David Jones fought the contract because they thought it lacked proper accountability measures. Jones says he was pleased to be invited to the Mayor’s new group, but he’s still feeling it out.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a good start, but it is a start, so I’m appreciative of that,” said Jones. “I do have mixed feelings about it, just hearing some of the comments—hearing some of the attitudes.”
The mayor says the goals for these meetings are to encourage police and community to talk and work together, to improve recruitment and training, and to increase officer accountability and transparency.
Munirah Small is on the committee—and part of a group called Moms of Black Boys United. She says dialogue is great, but they need to go much farther than that.
“ It is important to us that we actually put a platform in effect that is not only going to work for San Antonio but is going to be a module that can be used everywhere,” said Small. “Because the issue of police brutality and negative community policing is an issue everywhere, and if it is not fixed at the core of the problem, we’re going to continue to see these viral stories everywhere.”
Earlier this year, a San Antonio police officer shot an unarmed black man named Antronie Scott—claiming he mistook a cell phone for a gun. Scott lost his life. Officer John Lee kept his job.
Chief William McManus says the mayor’s meeting is in line with his reform efforts.
“This kind of dialogue is one of the things that’s recommended in the 21st century policing report, so we’re ahead of the game there,” McManus said.
The San Antonio Police Officer’s Association opposes some parts of the 21st century policing reform efforts recommended by the Obama Administration and taken on by SAPD. But the union’s vice president Dean Fischer was at the meeting, and says sitting down and talking is common sense.
Mayor Taylor says future meetings will be scheduled soon, and some will be public, some will not.