Criminal justice discussion sparks heated debate
The San Marcos City Council voted to revise the purpose statement for the Criminal Justice Reform Committee during Tuesday’s regular meeting.
The committee was originally created by city council in 2019 to work with the county to implement policies related to Cite and Release. Since Cite and Release has been implemented as an ordinance, it was suggested that the councilmembers revise the committee’s scope to address specific new issues, rather than continue working on the broad topic of criminal justice in the meetings. The move updated the scope and purpose to work with Hays County on criminal justice reform issues as well as the developing Cite and Divert policies and bring transparency to policing processes as allowed by law.
The vote of the revised scope captured the support of all but Councilmember Shane Scott, after a heated conversation late into the evening. Once the conversation of a new scope was opened, councilmemebers Maxfield Baker and Alyssa Garza wanted to broaden the scope of the committee, while Scott was concerned about taking too much time from staff and Chief of Police Stan Standridge who has his own criminal justice issues he has been charged with addressing.
“Criminal justice reform currently in our socio-political landscape is really complex,” Garza said. “We can’t have a cookie cutter approach to criminal justice reform. I know we are supposed to have a scope, I do think there should be room for bringing up other relevant issues.”
“My hope is with the CJR committee just like we do with housing and other committees that we can suss out some of the conversations ahead of time and propose resolutions to city council that have a little bit of staff work put into them,” Baker said.
The reason for agendizing a new scope, rather than tackling new criminal justice issues as they come up, was in part because City Manager Bert Lumbreras wanted the scope to be supported by a majority of the city council, so as to use staff time more effectively for exploring issues that would be supported by a majority of the city council.
“I have to respond to the whole council, not just one or two councilmemebers,” Lumbreras said, concerned that his staff would be overburdened with requests for research and groundwork.
Baker and Garza expressed that they felt stonewalled by the need to create a list of pre-approved topics in order for them to be discussed in committee, only for them to bring back more researched proposals at a later time, when according to the recently approved new council committee rules, any given issue might already have the support of two councilmembers as is required to agendize.
“I feel like the pushback I am receiving is because I am talking about uncomfortable issues, things that are not easy for government to deal with especially when it comes to dealing with police unions,” Baker said. “I do feel stonewalled ... A lot of these rules and committee procedures didn’t seem to matter until we started dealing with really tough criminal justice issues.
“I really need y’all to recognize that every second we do not talk about these issues, or that we run them through some bureaucracy, people are dying, being shot by police officers, people are being arrested wrongfully, students in our schools don’t feel safe,” Baker said.
In discussion of the potential new scope, Scott expressed a need for a more narrow scope or even dissolution of the committee to ensure the conversation would not be centered around a national criminal justice agenda.
“To be honest, I really don’t care about the national agenda by any means,” Scott said. “I care about the people in this community. If you’re going to put together a group that is worried about our criminal justice system, then I would prefer it to be on our criminal justice system. We aren’t the same shoe, we don’t have the same problems other people have ... important as it is, we need to focus on our community.”
Garza pushed back saying that it was not possible to understand the experience of local people without considering a larger national context.
“I’m not saying that we are killing people to the extent that the nation is, but to understand people’s perspective and experiences we can’t pretend we don’t exist in the United States of America where this conversation is being held,” Garza said. “The assertion that we don’t have similar issues to the national narrative reeks of privilege. Wide sectors of our community have expressed severe distrust regarding policing. My statement was only that we understand that those two perspectives, national and local, need to be taken into consideration.”
Standridge chimed in to agree that the conversation was being conflated with a national narrative, but also said that there was much work to be done across the nation and within the San Marcos Police Department.
“You all hired me to address many of the issues that have been discussed, to include the fact that your very police officers that you are now targeting, have been shot and killed and murdered in this city,” Standridge said as he listed a myriad of new programs and measures being taken to address policing and community issues. “I’m already probably giving you probably 55-plus hours per week. But I am up to the task. If it’s the collective consensus of the city council by majority vote that you want us doing these issues.”
While it was agreed upon to change the scope of the committee, many councilmembers agreed that they did not want to place too many limitations on the issues that could be discussed.
“If we do as I suggested and Baker agreed, it’s expanded to all criminal justice items,” Councilmember Melissa Derrick explained. “There are a lot of issues we need to discuss that involve the members of our community and how they are treated, how their children are treated, I don’t want to leave it close ended. I would prefer to have all the sausage made in the criminal justice reform committee.”
The councilmembers also agreed on a suggestion by Mayor Jane Hughson that the committee organize themselves in a partnership with Standridge and discuss issues that fall on both their priority lists.
Baker agreed there was a need to have a conversation and, “find the things we can unify around, but understand that some of these are going to be really uncomfortable conversations.”
In other business, the councilmembers will be appointing members to a new COVID-19 Recovery Council Committee at the next city council meeting.
The committee will last six months, will deal directly with health outcomes and will not discuss funding allocation.
Meeting longer than six months would require council approval.