20,000 signatures sought for 2023 ballot

San Antonio and activists across the state will launch a citywide petition campaign on Tuesday that, if enough signatures are collected, will give voters in May 2023 the option to decriminalize marijuana and abortion, d ban police from using no-knock warrants and chokeholds as well as expand the city’s citation and release policy for low-level, non-violent crimes.

The proposed charter amendment is “focused on reducing unnecessary arrests and combating mass incarceration, saving scarce public safety resources, and holding police accountable to build a safer San Antonio for all,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, a local police reform group.

The group will officially launch its petition campaign at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at the steps of San Antonio City Hall.

The proposed changes, if the petition is accepted, will appear as a single ballot initiative alongside the mayoral and city council races in the May 2023 ballot.

ACT 4 SA will work with Ground Game Texas, a group that lobbies for progressive legislation in communities across the state, and other organizations to collect the required 20,000 verified signatures from registered voters in San Antonio to obtain the “Charter justice”, as Tomas calls it. .

City charter changes can only be attempted every two years. It requires that the petition be signed by a number of qualified voters equal to at least 5% of the number of qualified voters in the municipality (approximately 60,000) or 20,000 – whichever is smaller.

The group is aiming to collect 35,000 signatures – expecting some will not be verified – to submit to the City Clerk by the early January deadline.

The group said it conducted a poll, conducted by Democratic political research group YouGov Blue, showing support for each measure ranging from 51% in favor of a ban on police use of neck restraints to 64% for a ban on no-hit raids. overall proposal polled at 67% approval.

“These are all things that for some reason the city government hasn’t done even though there’s public demand for them,” said Mike Siegel, political director and co-founder of Ground Game. Texas. “That’s the beauty of this tactic of direct democracy – the tactic of initiative – where we can take something that’s popular with the people and the people can legislate directly.”

Conversations around the initiative began late last year as local activists grew frustrated with the slow pace of reforms at City Hall regarding the expansion and codification of the citation and release policy. .

“If we know it’s something the community wants, that’s been good for the community, but we have a problem at the legislative level,” Tomas said, “why don’t we just bring that to the community for a vote? ?”

The proposed charter amendment would turn that existing policy — which law enforcement and the district attorney follow voluntarily, with discretion — into law and expand the number of low-level, nonviolent offenders who would receive a citation rather than a citation. arrest.

The existing citation and release policy saved Bexar County $4.7 million in jail costs in its first year, officials said.

While the city council recently passed a resolution that “downgrades” abortion-related crime investigations, the proposed charter amendment would bar them entirely, except in cases where “coercion or force is used against a pregnant person” or “in cases involving criminally negligent conduct”. to the health of the pregnant person requiring care”.

Right now, enforcement of this resolution is “entirely dependent on the chief of police and potentially rank and file police who follow this policy,” Seigel said. “We think deprioritization is way too squishy. This does not really guarantee the level of security desired by the community.

The proposed charter amendment would also end the law’s enforcement of low-strength marijuana possession, except in a few limited situations. This language is similar to Austin’s marijuana decriminalization, which was approved by 85% of voters in that city earlier this year. The proposed San Antonio amendment adds that police cannot use “the smell of marijuana or hemp to constitute probable cause for search or seizure.”

The initiative in Austin, also organized by Ground Game Texas, included a ban on no-knock warrants — when search and arrest warrants are executed without police officers announcing their presence. A New York Times investigation found that 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers were killed in quick, no-hit raids between 2010 and 2016.

In San Antonio, search and arrest warrants and chokeholds are already prohibited by department policy — with exemptions.

The proposed charter changes would legally ban them and provide rules for “quick hit” warrants — a kind of loophole to the no hit ban that leaves very little notice time, Siegel said. “What this policy does is set out, essentially, how search warrants are to be executed.”

“No police officer may enter a premises by force, in the absence of circumstances
in which there is a proven and imminent threat to human life,” the proposal reads. “A clap and an announcement must be provided in a manner reasonably expected to be heard, observed, and understood by the occupants of the places to be searched based on the size and nature of the location.”

The proposed charter amendment includes measures that have been implemented in cities across Texas and the United States, said Seigel, a civil rights attorney who previously served as an assistant city attorney for Austin. “These are both popular and enforceable. … We know it can be done. We know that the police are able to administer policies like this in a way that does not negatively impact public safety.

The sixth charter change would require the city to appoint a “director of justice” to oversee the implementation of these changes.

This director would also oversee “future municipal legislation relating to criminal justice, policing, all of that,” Tomas said. “An impact report needs to be written to ensure we stay on track as a city.”

In 2018, voters approved changes that capped the tenure and compensation of future San Antonio city managers and changed rules regarding arbitration for the firefighters’ union contract. In 2021, voters approved a change that allowed bond money to be spent on affordable housing.

That same year, voters narrowly rejected a measure that would have changed the police union’s contract bargaining rights. This proposal was not an amendment to the charter, but an attempt to repeal the local law. Tomas helped lead the campaign that collected signatures and lobbied for votes, Fix SAPD, which required 19,337 signatures and raised approximately $930,000.

“I don’t foresee [the Justice Charter] approaching the million dollar mark,” Tomas said.

These changes are direct requests for the community, she said. “It’s not just us implementing our thoughts and opinions, it’s what we’ve heard from the community and where they stand.”

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