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Activists use SMPD suspensions to highlight need for police reform

Undergoing renovations inside, the San Marcos Police Department is located on the I-35 Frontage Road.
Daily Record photos by Barbara Audet

Activists use SMPD suspensions to highlight need for police reform

Left, Danny Arredondo of CLEAT speaks with SMPD Chief of Police Stan Standridge.
Daily Record photo by Barbara Audet

Activists use SMPD suspensions to highlight need for police reform

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Just as the San Marcos Police Officers Association prepared to meet with the city to negotiate a new agreement last week, local activists were ready to make their presence known by outlining their own set of reforms.

Mano Amiga, along with the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, called a press conference prior to the start of the city’s first “Meet and Confer” discussion with the police department on March 23. At the conference, spokespersons for both organizations used a series of disciplinary documents going back as far as April of 2021 through October of 2022 to detail highlights of action and job performance by SMPD officers over the last several years in an effort to show, in their eyes, there is a strong need for reform.

Meet and Confer is an employment agreement between a city and the police and fire departments that formalizes policies and standards for hiring, firing, pay and discipline procedures. The city of San Marcos has entered into these agreements with the police force every three years for more than a decade.

Mano Amiga and Caldwell/ Hays Examiner each used examples from documents obtained through the open records process that chronicle the disciplinary process of SMPD that is backed up by the agreement still in effect with the city until a new agreement is drafted and ratified.

Sam Benavidez, communications director of Mano Amiga, said the main purpose of the press conference was to do a deep dive into one specific reform that requests the SMPD abolish police officers ability to forfeit vacation and holidays rather than take a suspension, “showing the community just how many times officers are getting to evade discipline for their actions is really important.”

“The most dangerous aspect of this policy is not that officers give up vacation time or that they get to continue working rather than serving the suspension,” Benavidez said. “For me, the most dangerous part is that they don’t have that suspension on their record, so they are able to preserve their seniority and continue to be eligible for promotions later.”

In a one on one interview with the Daily Record, San Marcos Chief of Police Stan Standridge responded to many of the criticisms now leveled against his officers and the department. He sees the existence of the documents used at the recent press conference as confirmation that the public does have access to police performance data and that these documents conversely show the department is working to establish a “culture of accountability.”

For Standridge, the timeframe of disclosure is one issue to clarify.

“By the time the readers become aware of a suspension, we are probably already three to six months removed from that having been finally disposed of,” Standridge said. “We have instituted a strong culture of accountability, really, for the last two years. And that is why everybody is now aware of police misconduct. … When we fall short, we're held accountable. I always like to say when we mess up, we fess up. And because we're a civil service police department, we suspend, and then it ultimately becomes discoverable to the community three to six months later.” The San Marcos Police Department Policy Manual is the first guide to job performance.

Benavidez said two of the four disciplinary incidents her organization was bringing into the spotlight involved documented racist comments by SMPD officers which she maintained, if such behavior remains unchecked by a more formal examination and control, leads to an umbrella of racial bias that may be more routinely practiced by officers interacting with the public.

During the press conference, Benavidez read from a signed document that, according to her, was a description of behavior attributed specifically to former SMPD officer Miranda McGee, in which that officer stated that she offered to give up some of her accrued vacation time in lieu of accepting suspension. At that time, her decision was within the standard practice of the department as per the Meet and Confer agreement then in place. A new agreement is being negotiated.

A recent open records request to obtain these same documents from the city of San Marcos by the Daily Record was still pending as of Friday, March 31.

Caldwell/Hays Examiner Publisher Jordan Buckley provided the Daily Record with copies of each document relative to three of the four cases discussed in the press conference. He told those attending the press conference that he obtained the documents through open records requests from the city. The Caldwell/Hays Examiner is a grassroots, advocacy-based publication mainly focused on criminal and social justice reform.

Buckley used these documents during the press conference to introduce the cases under scrutiny that he said pinpoint the need for departmental reforms. Included in his presentation, culling from the open records documents was one incident involving former SMPD Sgt. Ryan Hartman, after whom the Hartman Reforms–a listing of five criteria under consideration for change in these new negotiations– are named.

According to information contained in these open records documents, Hartman allegedly used a taser device on an individual who had exited a vehicle upon officer request, although, as the document stated, “the suspect had his hands visible and raised, yet you [Hartman] still used a conducted energy device against him. You used force that was unnecessary and unreasonable, and you failed to provide notice to the suspect that you were going to use such force.” This disciplinary document is signed by Standridge. The document further states that “there were no reasonable circumstances justifying such force.”

Hartman received a 40hour suspension, which essentially represents a loss of pay and time away from the department.” Hartman was allowed the opportunity to forfeit accrued vacation or holiday time rather than accepting suspension “with no loss of paid salary and no break in service for purposes of seniority or promotion.” By giving up vacation time, Standridge argued that an officer is losing pay, only at a different time in their employment. Again, this option was allowed “pursuant to the Meet and Confer Agreement between the City of San Marcos and the San Marcos Police Officers’ Association Agreement.” In addition, Hartman was required to complete de-escalation and minimizing use of force retraining as well as officer tactical training.

The individual who was tased hired a civil rightstrained attorney and sued the city. That lawsuit is ongoing.

For Standridge, this alleged use of excessive force by tasing was his first disciplinary experience with Hartman following his appointment as chief by city officials.

Hartman had, months previous to Standridge’s hiring in November 2020, been in a vehicular collision that resulted in the death of Jennifer Miller. In the interview with the Daily Record, the chief said he was surprised that Hartman was not indicted for his role in that fatality after he read a report generated by the Lockhart Police Department at the conclusion of its investigation.

To put the chronology in order, at the press conference, Benavidez said that on June 10, 2021, Mano Amiga partnered with Pam Watts, the surviving partner of the Miller, to hold a peaceful vigil outside of city hall. According to Benavidez, Standridge explained before the vigil began that the Meet and Confer agreement was the reason that SMPD could not discipline Hartman.

Benavidez said that this is when the Meet and Confer agreement was initially brought to their attention and her organization became more strongly involved.

Following Miller’s death in that collision with Hartman, Watts and Mano Amiga held a joint press conference, specifying five Hartman reforms that they were adamant should be implemented into the Meet and Confer Agreement. The reforms requested include a removal of the 180-day statute of limitations for police misconduct reporting; public transparency involving police misconduct records; an end to third party arbitration of these matters; the cessation of allowing police 48 hours to address the public about their misconduct; and an end to loss of vacation and holiday hours as a means to replace suspension.

When Mano Amiga came into the picture, a ballot initiative to repeal the entire Meet and Confer agreement was signed by approximately 11,000 city residents. On the strength of that petition, the city council had few options: either to repeal the Meet and Confer agreement or send the decision to voters in the next election. In a 4-3 vote, the council repealed the agreement last month.

But when Hartman tased the person whose hands were visible and raised, Standridge said the system of reviews put in place by the department worked with respect to accountability.

“He comes back to work [following the fatal car crash], and he has his first incident, of which I'm the chief now, of the tasing of a citizen. Our system that we (implemented), and this is really important, because you have to look at, organizationally, what are you doing to catch misconduct?” Standridge said. “We implemented what's called an ERB – Event Review Board. The event review board reviews every use of force, every pursuit, every crash and every significant event or injury. In other words, we inspect what we expect. That's how I became aware of Ryan Hartman using a taser against the citizen that a subsequent investigation showed was excessive force.”

Another disciplinary document brought forward during the press conference referenced current SMPD Cpl. John Cope for his alleged use of “offensive, racially-motivated slurs that were made in conversation with another San Marcos Police Department employee.” The document states that Cope discusses his earlier employment with a Montana police department. Cope is quoted in the open records document, stating, “There isn’t a lot of minorities,” and then, “The food sucks though because there’s no minorities.” He also stated here that he is from South Austin and likes “cultural food.” But, “if you wanna get Mexican food in Montana” “the demographic is not there to support. ... Those dietary pleasures.” As detailed in the open source document, Cope takes responsibility for those remarks, calling the statements “insensitive.” Cope was also investigated for allegedly stating, “Females shouldn’t be cops; cops shouldn’t be females.” During the department investigation, Cope denied making the sexist statement, but is quoted acknowledging a personal frustration that “there is no denying the standard is lower for women than it is for men,” and in the opinion of the officer, women should not have a lower standard of job performance expectation than their male counterparts.

Cope was given a 40hour suspension with accompanying pay loss for that time, and as the agreement authorized, was subsequently offered the opportunity to “forfeit vacation time or holiday time equal to the length of the suspension, to serve the suspension with no loss of paid salary and no break in service for purposes of seniority or promotion” once again, in accordance with the Meet and Confer agreement in place at that time and still in place. Cope was mandated to complete multiple sessions for diversity and respect in the workplace re-training.

In his interview with the Daily Record, Standridge was not asked to comment directly on Cope’s suspension and the resolution of that incident. However, in a similar vein, he emphasized that officers are routinely paid for remaining vacation time when they leave the department, and as a result, that forfeit of vacation time is still a pay loss, albeit delayed.

“So the citizens have got to understand it's pay now, or pay later, regardless,” Standridge said. “They're [officers} paying. The net effect is still a loss of their salary. Some people say they need a cooling off period. Okay, there's probably some value to that. Here's the issue. Let's say we allow this officer to cool off. Well, that's 40 hours that they're not at work. Guess what I have to do. I have to pay overtime to cover those 40 hours. Plus, remember, they didn't forfeit their vacation. Now they appeal. So they're going to appeal. Guess what an appeal costs right now? … The average appeal right now is $50,000. So my mathematical question to the citizens of San Marcos is simple. Do you want to pay $50,000 plus the overtime to replace the 40 (hours) or do you want to recognize the officers are losing their pay regardless?”

If an officer chooses to take suspension, they do not forfeit the right to an appeal. When the option to forfeit vacation or holiday time is exercised, officers may not appeal the suspension.

In a third case presented at the press conference, documents related to another, now former officer–this time former SMPD officer Jordan Perkins. According to this open records disciplinary document, Perkins was allegedly “distracted while driving” and as a result rearended a SUV that was legally stopped in the roadway. Following the collision with Perkins, the SUV was propelled into a truck. As detailed in this record, the driver of the SUV did not receive Perkins’ attention for almost five minutes. The document stated that this was the second preventable collision involving Perkins. He was suspended 24 hours without pay, but was allowed to use vacation time or holiday pay to equal the loss of time with no loss of paid salary and no break in service for purposes of seniority or promotion pursuant to the Meet and Confer agreement.

In reviewing this document, Buckley said that Perkins had other questionable disciplinary issues, but at time of press, the Daily Record was not able to independently verify or confirm those alleged instances.

During his interview with the Daily Record, Standridge said it was important to be on record and that these documents demonstrated that the concept and accountability procedures associated with the Event Review Board were working.

“The Event Review Board was not immediately appreciated, or favored [by officers],” he said. “Now, looking back, every one of them sees the value of that ERB. And they all would tell you that we believe right now we have a very accountable police department in spite of the community narrative, because nobody's looking at the actual evidence.”

During the meet and confer negotiations now underway, discussions related to how much public transparency may be allowed with respect to officer personnel files, particularly for those areas of a file that deal with job performance, positive or negative, have been broached. Section 143.089 of the local government code that governs municipal civil service for both firefighters and police officers states that personnel files must be maintained and may contain letters, memorandum or documents relating to commendation, honors or congratulations, while also may contain the same kind of documentation for misconduct resulting in disciplinary action by the officer’s employer.

Policy impacts

The officers attending the second meet and confer meeting held March 30, cited their concerns regarding the impact of a policy allowing routine disclosure of letters of reprimand or other documents relating to possible misconduct contained in an officer’s personnel file. The contention is that disclosure could radically affect someone’s ability to find a job after leaving the San Marcos Police Department. Routinely, most municipalities handle personnel issues in executive sessions that are closed to the public. Procedures for this depend on how agencies are organized with respect to standards and policies.

Use of personnel files

There was additional concern voiced in the meeting about the media taking personnel files out of context in an unfavorable way, based largely on the recent media spotlight highlighting the cases connected to Hartman, specifically.

In the days ahead, the Daily Record will present additional investigations into a different tasing case that generated a lawsuit against the department.

Yet for officers who have agreed to abide by provisions of the ERB, for example, not being able to move forward past the actions of former officers or to proceed with necessary retraining with current officers willing to improve, the so-called hostility facing them is daunting and hurts morale.

“The officers are admittedly frustrated, because they do not believe they have a voice,” Standridge said when asked about the state of morale among his police officers. “They believe that the voice of the local activist is the only voice being heard. … So they would like a level of objectivity. And they would like citizens to actually review the evidence. And then they probably would most love for the non-vocal majority to be more vocal.”

In the midst of so much discussion about excessive force by officers in the media, some officers raised the specter of the dilemma the department faces in hiring new officers.

This hiring cannot be separated from the balanced act of the protection of personnel privacy versus the need for the public to know of possible misconduct by officers of the department.

“I think both sides of the table need to be cognizant of how competitive we can be when it comes to drawing people to the city and hiring,” SMPD Commander Lee Leonard said, during the March 30 meeting..

Lee gave a recent example of an officer with multiple years of experience who applied for a position with SMPD but who chose to take a job with the New Braunfels Police Department instead, The next special called Meet and Confer negotiation is set for 9 a.m., Thursday, April 7 at the San Marcos Public Library and the agenda is available at

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