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San Antonio Activists Take On Police Union Contract


For some time now, activists seeking change around this country's criminal justice system have made police abuse a top priority. Increasingly, activists and officeholders have pointed to police unions and their contracts as a major roadblock to those changes. A group in San Antonio called Fix SAPD is now trying to change that dynamic in their city. A ballot measure in today's citywide election would, if passed, repeal the union's collective bargaining rights. Oji Martin co-founded Fix SAPD, and she is with us now to tell us more from San Antonio. Oji Martin, thanks so much for joining us.

OJI MARTIN: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I think I should mention that we do not believe that we are related, even though we have the same last name. So with that being said, this is a relatively new group started just this past year. Could you just tell us a little bit about how Fix SAPD got started? Like, what was the germ of the idea?

O MARTIN: Yeah, so it started directly after the death of George Floyd. Like so many other Americans sitting in my home, I was just watching the television screen wondering how could this happen and what can we do about it? And it began with the kitchen table conversation with my brother that led to us doing more investigation on a Washington Post reporting that San Antonio was No. 1 in the nation for rehiring fired officers. And a deeper dive into it, we saw that there are some issues within our current police union contract that have resulted in that high percentage of rehired officers that have been fired previously by the chief.

So we decided to talk to our neighbors, talk to our family and friends and basically were able to get people excited about this issue of fixing the accountability problems in San Antonio by repealing collective bargaining for police officers here in our city. That was really the only way that we could have impact on the contract itself.

MARTIN: And collective bargaining - for people who don't know, that means what? That just means that the union represents the employees and negotiates around issues like what - overtime wages, disciplinary procedures, things of that sort?

O MARTIN: Correct. So with collective bargaining, the police union here in San Antonio represents the police officers of San Antonio Police Department. And they are able to negotiate on benefits, wage, compensation, all that stuff. But something else that they are able to negotiate on is discipline. And for most people, right off the bat, if you ask them this, should accountability be negotiable, it is no. Accountability is non-negotiable. Great. Negotiate on your benefits, your pension, your health care. All that is fine. But when it comes to holding bad apple officers accountable for their actions, that is non-negotiable. And that is what we are trying to do here in San Antonio, bring accountability to the forefront and make sure that it is something that we consider in any contract that is signed moving forward.

MARTIN: Can you give us an example of where you feel that the current contract was perpetuating negative behavior or has prevented someone who has committed wrongdoing from being held accountable?

O MARTIN: So if listeners go to, you will be able to find the 10 most egregious disciplinary barriers that are within the contract. They include arbitration, which means officers have the opportunity to overrule the chief's decision through an arbitration process, which we find out has led to 70% of officers getting their jobs back. Some other disciplinary issues within the contract include the 180-day rule, which is basically a statutes of limitation for when the chief of police can reprimand an officer for an offense. And I'll give you an example of that.

There was the infamous case of Matthew Luckhurst, who fed a homeless man, a man living on the street, offered him a feces sandwich, two pieces of bread with feces in between them and gave it to this man.

MARTIN: Why? Why?

O MARTIN: I don't think anyone could tell you why he decided to do that act that day. However, as any reasonable chief of police or any reasonable employer would do, he was fired by the chief of police. But because of the barriers in this contract, he was able to, one, seek arbitration and, two, when his arbitration because of the 180-day rule, which basically stipulated that because the chief did not reprimand him in the allotted time, this individual should be allowed his job back, even though the arbitrator sided with the chief saying, yes, that was the right thing to do. However, my hands are tied. The law says this officer needs to be given his job back and not only given his job back but he's given his job back with back pay because this arbitration took almost a year to complete.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting, though, is that Texas is a right-to-work state. But progressives in recent years have been trying to get more workers covered by collective bargaining rights, not fewer. I mean, people will remember that, you know, this - the big push just in the last month to try to get an Amazon warehouse - this is obviously a private employer but to get them unionized.

O MARTIN: Correct.

MARTIN: You know, in recent years, I mean, that's - what's so interesting about this is that you're going in the opposite direction here. And I'm just wondering if you've thought about that. And how do you square that?

O MARTIN: Yeah, so I have thought about that because myself personally, I do believe in workers' rights. I do believe in the usefulness and purposefulness of unions. They've been so instrumental in making sure that workers get the things that they need for safety as well as compensation. And that is so important to me. However, when a union hurts individuals with their ability to collectively bargain, when they take that privilege and use it instead of for good but rather to protect and create some kind of insulation for bad apple officers, I see this no longer as a workers' rights issue but a human rights issue. That is how I square it.

We do not want officers on our streets that feed men living on the streets feces sandwiches. We do not want officers that have been fired not one, not two, not three, not four, not five but - in the case of Lee Rankin, he was fired six times by the chief of police for a list of disorderly conduct, including using racial slurs against a Mexican American lieutenant. So when we have a collective bargaining structure that facilitates such egregious offenses and facilitates a means for bad apples to be left unaccountable for their actions, we are no longer talking about workers' rights and are now talking about human rights.

MARTIN: That was Oji Martin. She is one of the co-founders of Fix SAPD. Oji Martin, thanks so much for talking with us.

O MARTIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.