All of these were fired by the authorities chief. And all of them were rehired after an arbitrator overturned their dismissals — in an activity laid out in the contract between the city and the powerful police union.
In more than four out of 10 of the cases in which arbitrators ruled on officer terminations over the last decade, those firings were overturned, according to data provided by the San Antonio police department.
“We’ve seen too many cases where the arbitrator has overturned the chief’s decision when it’s as clear as day that that officer accused of misconduct should no longer be on the force,” Ron Nirenberg, the city’s mayor, told CNN. “It’s egregious.”
San Antonio is hardly an exception: Around the country, police unions have played a decisive role in shaping department policies and shielding bad cops from accountability, experts say.
Now, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd have refocused national attention on police misconduct, unions representing officers are facing a wave of new scrutiny and an unprecedented political backlash.
Often negotiated in today’s world, contracts sometimes are approved by local politicians whose campaigns have been bankrolled by the exact same unions they’re dealing with.
And police unions have only grown in financial power recently: The total assets of 56 large city police unions jumped by nearly a third between 2011 and 2017, according to a CNN analysis of IRS tax filing data.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, however, the tide has started initially to turn, with some cities moving to reform their collective bargaining procedures and labor activists edging away from their police colleagues.
Stephen Rushin, a Loyola University Chicago law professor who has studied police unions and contracts, said a national rethinking of the role of police unions could have a significant impact in holding more cops accountable.
“This moment feels different,” he said. “This could be a really important inflection point.”
How union contracts block accountability
In cities around the country, police officers are several of the most difficult government employees to fire because of favorable contract provisions negotiated by local unions.
Contracts block accountability in various ways: Some ban civilian oversight or require disciplinary records to be destroyed. Others put limits on internal investigations, give officers advance notice for interrogations or require the town to pay if officers are held accountable for misconduct in court.
That means that even though those cities approve tough new regulations about usage of force, for example, it could be hard to jettison cops who don’t follow the rules.
Those disciplinary procedures are negotiated in the contract bargaining process at the same time as issues like salaries, wages and benefits for officers, Rushin said.
“Particularly in budget-strapped cities, when officials can’t meet the financial demands of the union, the concession they’re ultimately forced to make is on discipline,” Rushin said. “They can bury the disciplinary measures in the contract, and the public may not understand what it means, even as the monetary savings make the headlines.”
Police union leaders say the discipline rules they will have won in contract negotiations are important to make sure their members due process, and that officers deserve strong protections due to the danger and unpredictability of their jobs.
“Police officers are under attack, and I think you’re going to see less people sign up for the job,” said Jeff Roorda, executive director of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which successfully stymied an attempt by the local district attorney to make an independent unit to probe police misconduct. “What we do is defend police officers’ due process rights, the same rights every American has.”
But other experts argue that police contracts are so favorable for officers largely because of the political power of unions and their influence among local elected officials.
“Police unions have much more protection than other government or other public unions,” said L. Song Richardson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine.
In several cities, officers have elected more bombastic leaders in recent years, thrusting their unions into culture war battles and strongly opposing reforms.
A spokeswoman for Catanzara declined an interview request from CNN, and Kroll did not react to a request comment.
Why fired cops get hired again
Policing experts say that San Antonio’s union-negotiated contract is just about the favorable for a police union.
Other provisions in the contract restrict interrogations of officers during internal affairs investigations and, in some instances, allow cops to avoid a suspension as high as 45 days if they forfeit accumulated vacation, bonus time or holiday leave.
In 12 other termination cases, officers resigned or retired ahead of the case went before an arbitrator, and in 20 other cases the chief settled with officers, allowing them to keep coming back with a lower punishment. Those settlements frequently come at the advice of the department’s attorneys, and some are entered in to because of the likelihood an arbitrator would overturn a termination, a SAPD spokesman said.
Out of 81 police contracts analyzed by Campaign Zero, San Antonio’s is among just six that contain language limiting accountability in all of the areas the group tracked. Rushin’s analysis also found it to be “one of the most deferential to law enforcement interests,” that he said.
According to Texas campaign finance data, the San Antonio union’s political action committee has spent significantly more than $2.3 million since 2010, including more than $300,000 in direct contributions to political candidates. The group had previously made donations to half the city council members who voted for the 2016 contract, along with the mayor who negotiated it.
William McManus, the authorities chief, called the contract’s limits on discipline frustrating.
“To have an arbitrator undermine the chief’s authority to determine what is best for their department and their community contributes to the notion that there is no police accountability,” he said in a statement.
But union president Mike Helle said the process defended officers from being at the mercy of the chief’s “whims.”
“There’s nobody on this police department that wants a policeman that’s bad because it tarnishes all of us,” Helle told CNN. “The only thing that we have negotiated for and we continue to hope for is that we just have a fair process.”
The bad cops ‘need to be provide street’
Over the years, San Antonio arbitrators have overturned terminations for eyebrow-raising examples of misconduct, even when none of the important points were in dispute.
In July 2018 body camera audio captured Officer Tim Garcia again and again using the n-word as that he arrested a Black man for trespassing at an area mall. An evaluation board recommended Garcia be fired, and McManus moved to “indefinitely suspend” him from the force.
At Garcia’s disciplinary hearing in 2019, McManus called his behavior “the most inappropriate language I have ever heard used during an arrest,” based on arbitration records. But the arbitrator, Thomas Cipolla, disagreed with the punishment, reducing Garcia’s sentence to a 10-month unpaid suspension and sending him back to the force.
“Throughout anybody’s career, they’re gonna make mistakes,” Helle told CNN, saying Garcia “couldn’t apologize more.”
Other officers had their terminations overturned after bizarre behavior. Officer Matthew Belver was fired in 2016 after a dashboard camera captured him removing an arrestee’s handcuffs and making him an offer: If that he beat him in a fight, that he could go free. The arrestee declined.
In arguing for Belver’s termination, the department pointed to a different 2010 incident in which that he allegedly challenged another arrestee to a fight and punched him in the facial skin. But the authorities contract negotiated by the union bars the department from invoking years-old cases to justify firings, except under certain circumstances — a provision the arbitrator noted in his decision reducing the 2016 firing to a 45-day unpaid suspension. Belver, who declined to comment, is still on the force but is needed to ride with a partner constantly, a department spokesman said.
Officer Matthew Luckhurst was fired in 2016 after admitting he put dog feces between a slice of bread and left it near a homeless man. The man didn’t eat it, but another officer testified that Luckhurst had later spread rumors he force-fed the person the sandwich, according to the arbitration ruling, and the chief concluded his behavior was “inhumane.”
The arbitrator paid off Luckhurst’s punishment to a five-day suspension because it took the chief significantly more than 180 days to impose discipline in case. But Luckhurst was fired again just a couple weeks after his first termination for another poop-related incident: smearing a brown “boba tea smoothie” on the seat of the sole toilet in the women’s locker room of a police station, according to arbitration documents. That decision was upheld by an arbitrator last month. Luckhurst didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Rakun retired from the force earlier in 2010 as part of his last disciplinary settlement, the department said. In a text message, Rakun declined to comment on his disciplinary record but argued that the union’s contracts were fair and noted that “many of these city officials clamoring for ‘police reform’ likely have their signatures on these agreements time after time.”
In other cases, the authorities chief reversed his own decision to terminate officers while facing pressure from the union and the prospect to be overturned by an arbitrator.
In February 2016 Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, an unarmed Black man, after mistaking the cellular phone he was holding for a gun. McManus initially moved to suspend Lee indefinitely.
Lee never faced criminal charges on the shooting. Scott’s widow and mother sued the city and Lee, and the case is ongoing. Lee resigned from the department in February, and legal counsel representing him did not react to a request comment. In court documents, Lee’s attorney has argued he is protected by qualified immunity, a legal protection that is frequently used to block lawsuits against police officers.
The city’s police contract expires next year. Gregory Hudspeth, the president of the local San Antonio NAACP branch, said that most San Antonians did not seem to pay much awareness of the contract when it had been negotiated four years ago — but he and other activists were getting ready to shine a stronger spotlight on the matter during the upcoming negotiations.
“The bad officers need to be off the street, or we’re going to have an incident like the George Floyd case here,” that he said. The current arbitration system, Hudspeth said, is apparently designed to “wait until an officer causes someone’s death before they say it’s worth terminating him.”
What’s happening now to boost police accountability
As anger has grown over police usage of force in recent weeks, some cities are chipping away at police unions’ bargaining and political powers.
“We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them,” the board wrote.
In the wake of the backlash, some police unions are moving to propose their particular reforms to the profession — a possible bid to head off more sweeping changes.
“No words can convey our collective disgust and sorrow for the murder of George Floyd,” the unions wrote in a newspaper ad announcing the proposals. “We have an obligation as a profession and as human beings to express our sorrow by taking action.”
But local activists say their suggestions don’t go far enough.
CNN’s Yahya Abou-Ghazala contributed for this report.