Editorial other views

The following editorial published in the San Antonio Express-News on April 2:

The story of the handling of an arrest report involving Fire Chief Charles Hood’s youngest son is one of corrosive secrecy.

It’s not a story that should be tolerated at City Hall or any level of government, and yet only one City Council member, Melissa Cabello Havrda of District 6, appears to get this, bravely speaking out about an expunged police report and a city unwilling to acknowledge its failure to be open and honest with the public. Everyone else, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, has fallen short.

Discussing an expunged record is legally thorny — how does one acknowledge something that no longer exists? That said, there has to be a way to acknowledge a failure to be open with the public.

As Havrda so perfectly summarized: “My concern is the perception of a government that isn’t open to the people, the people that I represent. It’s detrimental to all of us — it’s detrimental to me, to the people that I represent, and it’s detrimental to the city.”

She was referring to the arrest this summer of Hood’s youngest son at San Antonio International Airport. As Express-News reporters Brian Chasnoff and Emilie Eaton have outlined, the 17-year-old was suspected of having a fake ID and providing false information to a police officer. Hood’s son was charged with a Class C misdemeanor, but the report was later expunged.

What we find particularly galling is the timeline. Hood’s son was arrested June 26. On Aug. 3, Eaton requested the police report, citation and the city’s contract with an outside attorney to review airport police officers. Perhaps the report was expunged before the records request — we just don’t know.

Occasionally, city representatives would deflect. Laura Mayes and Jeff Coyle, who handle press inquiries for the city, would acknowledge emails from Eaton but nothing more.

In December, Assistant City Attorney James Kopp wrote to the attorney general’s office that the report should not be disclosed for a variety of reasons. But he also said the request was not received until Nov. 23. This, he said, is because the city was not operating under normal “business days” due to the pandemic. Come February, there were no documents to release.

An aside: Various government entities have used the pandemic as an excuse to not release or delay the release of records. This is indefensible.

But wait — there is more secrecy. The arrest sparked a rift between Hood and Police Chief William McManus. To address Hood’s concerns of possible racial bias, the city hired Danielle Hargrove, a mediation specialist, at $325 an hour. All told, she billed the city $5,525 and determined there was no racial bias, but she never provided a written report. It was done verbally.

Again, there is no record.

But that doesn’t mean the arrest did not happen. While we understand Hood’s concern for his son, who was taken to the Bexar County Jail and later the Frank D. Wing Municipal Court Building, the unfortunate reality is this is the untenable criminal justice system the community has chosen to live with. It’s a system that screams for fundamental change, which is why we repeatedly called for reforms in our “Unequal Justice” project.

Yes, the cite-and-release program should be expanded to more nonviolent offenses. People accused of nonviolent offenses, especially misdemeanors, should not languish in jail. But people do languish in jail, and they often plead guilty to be released, regardless of innocence.

We agree with Hood that his son should never have been in jail — there are better ways to handle such nonviolent offenses — but that’s the story for myriad cases each day. The difference here is few people have their police reports expunged following an opaque process.

In the end, the public is in the dark, a rift has emerged between the police and fire chiefs, and trust in the city has taken a hit.

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