Policing experts concerned over how San Antonio Police Department supervises officers

Texas Public Radio consulted two experts in policing about the shooting case, what the body camera footage showed, and what disciplinary records revealed about the city’s supervision of its officers.

By Paul Flahive, Texas Public RadioJuly 14, 2023 9:30 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

It’s been more than two weeks since three San Antonio police officers found Melissa Perez in a mental health crisis and fatally shot her. Her family has filed a lawsuit, and the police department charged its officers with murder.

Perez’s family said the incident was just the latest in a culture of excessive force that doesn’t properly supervise its armed officers.

Disciplinary records of two of the officers raised questions about how the city holds its officers accountable.

The city and its police force quickly condemned its officers for shooting Perez. Within a day they had arrested the Officers Nicholas Villalobos, Eleazar Alejandro and Sgt. Alfred Flores — even before the ballistics reports were in.

Lawyers for the men argued the arrest was rushed. One said it wasn’t clear whose bullets had struck the woman, so three men may have been arrested when only one was actually responsible. Beyond that, lawyers maintained that the men acted appropriately under the law.

Undoubtedly, the speed of the arrest was intended to send a message to the community that this was an egregious act. But Chief William McManus also pointed out that this was an isolated case.

“We have no gap in our training, or our policies that would have allowed for this to happen. …” he said.

But the recently filed federal lawsuit against the police caused critics to wonder — what good are SAPD policies if officers don’t observe them?

TPR found eight suspensions between Alejandro and Flores, many of them for serious violations of policy. Flores was nearly fired in 2017 for an off-duty altercation and an investigation that found he was regularly leaving his patrol area to go home. The indefinite suspension was changed to one for 10 days. Alejandro unnecessarily broke down a door in a person’s house.

“What you saw here [in disciplinary reports] was officers who were engaging in conduct that was not only outside of policy, but sort of had the character of officers being on kind of a law unto themselves,” said Jonathan Smith, former chief of the special litigation section of the civil rights division at the Justice Department.

He spent years investigating police departments for pattern and practice violations.

Smith said the record of Flores was especially troubling because he was able to rise through the ranks — promoted twice — despite several serious infractions in a short period of time.

“Suspensions of this length are unusual,” he said. “I mean, Flores from 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 — he had three serious infractions. That gets really close to career ending [behavior] in most departments.”

Smith observed SAPD also doesn’t take past infractions into account or issue progressively harsher punishments — as other police departments have done.

In a statement to TPR, a department spokesman pointed to some discretion given to commanders to not promote because of suspensions.

“Unless the department head has a valid reason for not appointing the person, the department head shall appoint the eligible promotional candidate,” the local government code explains.

But he said until recently, past union contracts had prevented them from progressively punishing officers fully. The past contract limited how far back they could look.

Courtesy SAPD

A screenshot of from body camera footage of Sgt. Alfred Flores firing into Michelle Perez's home.

What surprised Theron Bowman, a former police chief in Arlington, Texas — he was a policeman for more than 30 years and now runs the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy consulting group — was that the department didn’t use non-punitive measures in any of the suspensions for Flores or Alejanrdo. No one was sent back to the academy. No one was retrained.

“I didn’t see that,” he said. “Punishment alone is usually not sufficient to correct conduct or correct behavior. But it appears that in these instances, only punishment was applied, and not some additional corrective action, like retraining.”

SAPD employs what’s called an early intervention system — a computer system that collects lots of data on officers and flags behaviors and civilian complaints — and can refer officers to their Officer Concern Program.

It isn’t clear if any of these officers had been referred to the program. The city has asked the Texas attorney general to keep civilian complaints and performance evaluations of the officers involved in this shooting confidential.

“You can have pristine training and terrible supervision and culture that come with these outcomes,” Smith said.

These deficiencies in the disciplinary paperwork paired with Perez’s deadly encounter could mean SAPD contributed to a culture in which excessive force is tolerated.

“You can’t tell everything about a department from this incident. But boy, there’s an awful lot that seems to be exposed by what happened here,” Smith added.

Bowman calls the police culture the “guiding light” of officers out on the street. It needs to be monitored and cared for, he said.

City and police have been sued a dozen times in 10 years for civil rights violations. The city also has a high rate of in-custody deaths. According to state documents, 113 people have died while interacting with or after interacting with San Antonio police.

The Perez family’s lawsuit said 96 of those were at the hands of the police, a number higher than Chicago and Houston, both much larger cities.

“I think 96 in-custody deaths over a 10-year period is a lot for any major city in the United States,” Bowman said. “I’m not familiar with the situation or circumstances but to have an average of almost 10 a year is a lot.”

TPR reviewed the death reports of the 113 and found at least 80 that were due directly to police. Gunshot wounds were the leading cause of death.

Investigations into the officers awaiting indictment continue with SAPD’s Internal Affairs department, and the federal lawsuit may offer new insights into how the police police themselves.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and Texas Public Radio. Thanks for donating today.