In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights of all men. Many years later in Superman comic books, this concept evolved into “the American Way” (i.e., truth, justice, and the American Way). Although I am not an anthropologist or a world traveler qualified to speak of other cultures, I believe that an overarching belief in justice is one of America’s enduring, singular values. Whereas people in other countries seen willing to accept an unjust result or an unfair system, Americans often go to great lengths to correct an injustice as a matter of principle. Part of that motivation comes from an optimistic belief that, although mistakes sometimes happen, they will be corrected if brought to the attention of our leaders.
As a lawyer, I am an especially strong believer in truth, justice, and the American way because I have not seen a lot of injustice in our country that couldn’t be corrected with the help of a competent advocate. A couple of years ago, however, my belief was shaken a bit by San Antonio’s finest.
The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) has been controversial since I moved to town in 1987. The police union has a lot of political power, which has been used to win a series of expensive employment contracts with the city. Although the education of the officers is relatively low, their pay is relatively high, especially for a low-income city like San Antonio. According to a national survey of desirable police jobs, San Antonio is #2 in the county.
That #2 status seemed like a stroke of good fortune for my oldest son, Bobby, who has always been interested in law enforcement. After graduating from Clark HS, he obtained a criminal justice degree from UTSA and also became an Army Reserve officer through UTSA’s ROTC, with a Military Police specialty.
After getting married, Bobby and his school-teacher wife decided to settle in San Antonio, so he applied to the SAPD. At first, everything went fine – his education was exceptional, military service was a plus, and he passed the exam and physical test with ease.
Then there was a hiccup. During an interview, Bobby was asked if he had every broken a drug law. Because Bobby is scrupulously honest (and had been taught in Boy Scouts that alcohol was a drug), he thought carefully and recalled that a couple of years earlier, when he was 21 years old, he had purchased some beer for some younger friends on a few occasions. Surely that wouldn’t be a problem.
After the interview, Bobby was informed that, because he admitted to committing a Class A or B misdemeanor within the past ten years, he was deemed unsuitable for the position and would not be eligible to reapply until the unsuitability factor was no longer applicable (eight more years). That is like a death penalty – what college kid is going to wait around for eight years to start a career?
At my encouragement, Bobby went through police channels to question the result. The interviewer told Bobby that the problematic question wasn’t designed to elicit alcohol-related information, and Bobby would have been telling the truth if he had answered “no.” But since he had answered the question “yes,’ the rules required that he be rejected.
I was nonplussed. Surely some human being with authority would over-rule this bureaucratic absurdity. So I went to work looking for a human being. I wrote to the Mayor, the City Manager, my Councilperson, and the Chief of Police, but no one was interested in correcting this injustice. A friend at Valero put me in touch with the previous police chief, Al Phillipus, and I had a lengthy discussion with him, but he said that he didn’t have the ability to influence the result.
In the end, Bobby and I gave up. One stupid, inflexible rule stymied Bobby’s career. He considered applying at other police departments, but there is usually a question about whether you have previously been rejected by another police department. His alternative was to seek a federal job, and he was just about to land a job with ICE when he decided to go full-time in the Texas Guard.
The silver lining is that Bobby is happy with his job serving our country and doesn’t look back on San Antonio’s refusal to let him serve the city. But I’m afraid this incident has made me a bit cynical about San Antonio government and justice.