‘Four-year battle:’San Antonio activists say proposal to reduce marijuana arrests isn’t enough

Leaders of a local advocacy coalition said their yearslong efforts to create a permanent cite-and-release program in San Antonio were undercut last week when District 8 Councilman Manny Peláez submitted a proposal that could limit marijuana arrests but didn’t include other offenses eligible to receive a citation.

Peláez’s proposal also came just as District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was preparing to submit his own request for the council to consider a cite-and-release program.

SA Stands, a coalition made up of activist organizations in Bexar County, focuses on fighting mass incarceration and deportation, said Ananda Tomas, the founder of Act 4 SA and a leader in SA Stands.

“This is literally the work of community organizations all across the county that have done the research, collected petitions, spoken to community members,” she said. “And you’re just going to throw that away?”

Through SA Stands, local advocates have been working for about four years on their own draft proposal to make a cite-and-release program permanent at the city level. They have spoken with every City Council member, Tomas said, and already had someone to bring forward a request to the full council.

But that person was McKee-Rodriguez, not Peláez, said Tomas. She and others were surprised when news broke of a proposal that didn’t include the other low-level offenses eligible for citation under state law, in addition to marijuana possession.

Peláez said his request for City Council to consider cite-and-release is just meant to start the conversation about what a final program should look like. He said he didn’t undercut the group’s efforts, but put forward what he believes is right.

“I started a conversation that needs to be started,” he said. “They don’t own the issue of cite-and-release.”

McKee-Rodriguez said he’s had a number of meetings with SA Stands and city attorneys about what the city can and can’t do when it comes to cite-and-release. He said he’s been working on his own proposal on the topic with SA Stands and, like the group, wanted it to include more than marijuana possession.

“There’s a lot of nuance to it,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “The (request) that was submitted doesn’t necessarily hit the mark.”

McKee-Rodriguez sees cite-and-release as part of what he campaigned on: rethinking policing.

Peláez said he filed his cite-and-release request because he met earlier that week with SA Stands and advocates were tired of waiting for the city to move forward.

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What state law allows

Bexar County has a cite-and-release program that began in 2019 and partners with the San Antonio Police Department and other agencies. It offers police the chance to issue a citation instead of arresting someone for certain nonviolent offenses, including possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana, among other misdemeanors.

Tomas and others worry that without making it official, those policies could change.

“Once we get a new police chief or even a new district attorney, they could choose not to continue this practice if they wanted to,” she said. “If we were able to make this ordinance, it would be permanent.”

State law allows citations in lieu of arrests for some low-level offenses. The county citation program also covers certain thefts of up to $750, driving with an invalid license and more. It does not include some property crimes like graffiti.

The inclusion of those other crimes in a city policy went too far for Peláez; those incidents have victims, and marijuana possession doesn’t, he said. He pointed to small, local business owners in his district for whom losing $750 is no small amount.

“You can’t call these property crimes,” Peláez said. “There is somebody out there who is a victim.”

But Tomas said SA Stands wants local law enforcement to cover everything they legally can with a citation instead of an arrest. She pointed to reimbursement available for victims of some theft or graffiti.

Council members can move to add or remove parts of a cite-and-release policy when it reaches that point for debate. Tomas worried it would be more difficult to add measures to a program than it would be to whittle down what they’re presented with in the first place.

“We know that by starting with a watered-down policy, we already start at a loss for our community rather than starting with something comprehensive that reduces arrests and keeps families together,” Tomas said

SA Stands, Peláez and McKee-Rodriguez agree on one thing: That cite-and-release should include more rigorous reporting metrics, transparency and measures of success.

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‘Four-year battle’

The SA Stands coalition said more than 500 people supported its petition for their members’ proposed version of cite-and-release. Tomas said the group has held webinars, shared educational resources and spoken with other cities about their cite-and-release programs.

Their main goal for a heftier city policy is to reduce the impact of long-term criminal histories that can hurt someone’s access to employment, housing and more. They also aim to reduce racial disparities in policing.

At a minimum, McKee-Rodriguez said he wants to see the existing cite-and-release policy at the city and county made permanent, so future district attorneys and police chiefs can’t overturn the program. He said he’ll continue to work on the issue with city attorneys and advocacy groups.

“It takes a lot of time, especially when you’re doing policy like this,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “I was very surprised to hear that Manny had met with them on Monday and by the next day had already filed.”

Peláez has no regrets that writing his policy proposal took just one hour. He said he has a clean conscience about what he submitted for council consideration.

“Other council members are welcome to drag their feet,” he said. “The time we spend on City Council is fleeting.”

In the future, McKee-Rodriguez will consider a new policy request for council separate from Peláez’s if he thinks more changes need to be made. But in the meantime, he’s ready to move forward.

“I’m actually really happy Manny did file this because I think there’s a lot of opportunities to make changes,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “Really, it’s pretty open-ended.”

Peláez also invited everyone to begin weighing in on a cite-and-release program in San Antonio.

And SA Stands plans to show up for public input.

“We’re not going to stop (fighting) for comprehensive cite-and-release because of one barrier or hiccup,” Tomas said. “It’s been a four-year battle, and we don’t intend to stop.”

megan.stringer@express-news.net

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