San Marcos’ Police Contract Battles Heat Up

San Marcos Police Headquarters (Photo by John Anderson)

In San Marcos, the historically conservative town which experienced a blue wave after November’s election, the social justice group Mano Amiga has worked for the last two years to make San Marcos police officers more accountable for misconduct.

The group has tried to bake new rules – which they call the Hartman Reforms – into the contract between the police department and the city, to make it easier to uncover misconduct by officers when they commit it. For two years, the department has opposed the changes.

In February, San Marcos became the first Texas city to repeal a police contract, ever. But police won the latest round in the fight on May 16, when the San Marcos city council finalized a new contract with the department. The agreement will last until 2026 and does not include the Hartman Reforms. Now, Mano Amiga is promising to bring an election in the fall that would throw out the new contract and overwrite the whole legal framework that set it up in the first place.

“At the root of all this is whether or not you believe the most privileged, well-paid, and most powerful members of our city government deserve transparency in how they are held accountable,” said Mano Amiga’s policy director Eric Martinez. “Transparency is a fundamental principle of good government, and that’s not happening with this contract.”

The new contract does include two minor reforms. Department leaders will now have twice as long – 360 days – to investigate allegations of officer misconduct when they learn of them. They will also be able to take misconduct into account during the promotion process.

However, the department fended off several of the proposed Hartman Reforms. One would have ended the rule giving officers accused of misconduct 48 hours to review the evidence against them before answering investigators’ questions. Another would have opened the secret files that SMPD keeps on their officers to make misconduct allegations publicly available. Yet another would have stopped officers from using vacation time to serve suspensions.

SMPD Chief Stan Standridge lauded the changes in the contract, but Mano Amiga members called them “crumbs” and pointed out that the chief led the charge against the broader reforms, publicly and privately. When Chief Standridge did a presentation on the Hartman Reforms, there was no “room for community input,” said Sam Benavides, Mano Amiga’s communications director, who added one advocate was “shushed. So absolutely no room whatsoever for community input.”

“But little did we know that Standridge also gave that presentation behind closed doors to city council. … We have given the city council two chances to enact these reforms now and they just don’t have the political will to do it.”

Benavides said that in response Mano Amiga will soon begin collecting signatures to opt SMPD out of Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code, a state law allowing cities to use a separate legal framework – called civil service law – in the hiring and firing of city employees. Most cities in Texas use civil service law to reduce cronyism but critics say civil service has devolved into a method to block discipline for officers accused of misconduct. “And then officers would have essentially the same rights that all other workers in our city do.”

Mano Amiga has a track record of mobilizing community support for ballot measures, mostly recently helping to engineer a landslide vote for marijuana decriminalization last November. Benavides said the group will try to place the ballot measure taking SMPD out of the civil service framework on the November 24 election.

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