Meet one of the most powerful men in blue

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As president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association for almost a decade, Mike Helle has lobbied city leaders, defended officers accused of misconduct and sometimes sparred with community activists or the police chief.

Helle said he prefers to work behind the scenes representing the union’s 2,000-plus members. But his advocacy has been fierce, and in the past year, not exactly in the shadows.

The union’s open warfare with City Hall over its contract has been apparent to any San Antonian who watches TV commercials. And last month, Helle engineered a union “no confidence” vote against Police Chief William McManus over the discipline of an officer who shot an unarmed man.

The conflict with McManus also has centered on the department’s policy defining when police can use deadly force. Helle told his members the chief wants to change that standard. McManus called that a lie.

Helle, 50, is a detective and once worked undercover in the department’s repeat offender program. He is nearing 27 years on the force. But his full-time job is the union.

“I’m the type of person, it’s either in you or it’s not, when you see something that’s not right, you speak out when it’s not really popular to do so,” Helle said.

He appears to retain broad support among officers, though a few are wondering if the union is making too many enemies.

For years, city officials said they wanted to rework the police contract so officers would contribute to their health care plans, which the city long has paid for in full.

Other city workers, except for uniformed personnel, pay health care premiums. The union’s refusal has been bolstered by an evergreen clause that cements the now-expired contract in effect until 2024 unless both sides agree to a new one.

Before a city lawsuit failed to overturn that provision — the city’s appeal is pending — the union went after City Manager Sheryl Sculley, targeting her in political campaign-style TV spots. Negotiators then reached a consensus over health insurance and wages but have been at a stalemate over the length of the next evergreen clause.

More recently, the union has criticized Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Helle said he had mostly good working relationships with both Sculley and McManus until 2013. He said Sculley “launched her attack” on police and fire department employee benefits that year.

“That first punch, make no mistake about it, was thrown by the city manager,” Helle said. “And if you think about it, I have been the only person probably in her career that has stood up to her and punched her back.”

In a statement, Sculley said health care costs for uniformed employees have been growing faster than city revenue for 10 years.

“We see our future and the financial collision course we’re on if police officers and firefighters don’t contribute their fair share toward health care like every other worker in San Antonio,” the statement said. “We’ve all seen this coming, including Mike Helle.”

In 2009, Sculley proposed letting existing officers keep their current benefits and applying “the same health care benefits as our civilian employees” to newly hired officers, but Helle refused, the statement said.

“As long as he gets what he wants, Mike Helle is happy,” Sculley said. “And the union has gotten what they want for more than 25 years. Now that the city is determined to change the contract … we are seeing a different side of him.”

Taylor declined a request for an interview.

Deadly force

Helle worked to persuade the union’s 2,164 members to cast ballots of “no confidence” against McManus, and 1,944 of them did so March 23. Only 43 voted against the proposal. Helle also called for McManus to resign.

The union, like many across the country, already was firmly on one side of a national debate over when officers can be justified in using deadly force. To many observers, the vote seemed a direct repudiation of McManus’ public acknowledgment that the primacy of officer safety can lead to shootings that erode community trust in police.

McManus had addressed that issue before. But Helle said concerns among rank-and-file officers boiled over when McManus threatened to fire Officer John Lee, who had killed an unarmed man he was trying to arrest Feb. 4 on felony warrants that included a firearms charge. Lee said he thought Antronie Scott, 36, was holding a gun when he turned suddenly. It was a cellphone.

Helle said McManus rushed to judgment on the Lee case and took shortcuts in what should be a careful departmental procedure — and officers saw it as a message that McManus would not back them in situations where the courts have. It caused some officers to push for the vote, he said. Several officers interviewed for this report agreed.

McManus called the union action “vicious,” scorned the idea that he doesn’t care about officer safety and said he would not resign. Community and civic leaders have backed him and have slammed Helle and the union.

Helle called the vote unprecedented but said backing officers investigated for using deadly force always has been part of his job. In the immediate wake of such incidents, the officer’s first call might be to his wife, to let her know he’ll be late. The second call might well be to Helle.

“Sometimes, you’re in shock after a critical incident,” Helle said. “There’s quite a bit of unknown, and certainly there’s isolation. The officer hasn’t had anything to eat or drink and has to get his thoughts together. … I’m just there to ease that transition.”

Solid support, with critics

Helle’s support by the rank and file appears to be based on his willingness to go toe to toe with city officials.

“He kind of takes care of the guys, you know?” said George Felan, a former officer who retired in 2015. “He does a lot of dealing with the chief and the city, although lately, the chief doesn’t give a (expletive).”

Some union members, asking for anonymity, say they believe that Helle hasn’t been in the city’s face enough. But he has a tough job, others say.

“I’ve seen him stressed because he’s getting it from both sides. … You just can’t please everybody,” said Billy Hunt, who retired from the San Antonio Police Department in 2013 after 34 years and once supervised Helle. “Why he does it? I don’t know. But I think he does it well.”

One officer, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, called Helle dishonest and divisive, capable of freezing out members who don’t agree with his agenda or tactics.

“He’s gone after so many people, and has failed in every attempt, and now he’s destroying the rank and file by going after the chief of police,” the veteran officer said. “He’s made enemies out of everybody, and ultimately we’re still without a contract. He’s not achieving anything.”

Ostracism of dissenters was suggested by the circulation of a Fiesta medal featuring the number “43” with a slash through it, apparently aimed at the 43 officers who voted for McManus. Helle said he had nothing to do with it.

Noting there are many good officers, community activist Taj Matthews criticized Helle and the union for doing “everything it can to get (officers) off,” even those clearly in the wrong. And anyone who goes against Helle and the union, or who tries to be more even-handed — such as McManus — will end up a target.

“It’s almost like he and the union have made a practice of bullying not only this community, but this city,” Matthews said. “You’re going to fight the chief because he wants to come up with a solution for our community? You should want to improve the relationship with the community.”

Helle shrugs off the criticism. Since the union formed in 1946, he has been the only president to win four consecutive terms, and anyone can start a recall petition, he said.

Asked if the union always backs officers even when misconduct seems clearly established, Helle conceded: “The perception from outside might appear that way.”

“Have we had police officers indicted? Yeah,” Helle said. “But did you see me chanting, ‘No, he shouldn’t go to jail?’ No. But he should get due process.”

Partner was killed

The oldest of four siblings, Helle was born at McGuire AFB in New Jersey. His father retired as a Navy lieutenant commander. The military brought the family to Texas.

Helle graduated in 1983 from Carroll High School in Corpus Christi, worked for H-E-B, met and married his wife, Anna, and one day went on a ride-along with a friend in the Corpus Christi Police Department. He joined a reserve program on that department and was hired by SAPD in 1989, working “dog watch” (graveyard shift) patrols on the West Side followed by stints in the traffic investigations division, the evidence unit and the repeat offender program unit.

His union involvement began in the mid-1990s, when his partner, Officer Fabian Dominguez, asked him to share shift director duties with him. Dominguez was shot and killed in 1995 as he responded to a burglary. Helle has served as union treasurer, and he won the presidency in his first try, in 2008. Alongside his career, he raised two sons and a daughter.

Amid the regular ups and downs of police work, some incidents of his time on the force stand out. In 1991, he rear-ended a motorist who suddenly stopped on Culebra Road as Helle, driving an SAPD vehicle on duty, helped chase a burglary suspect. The motorist sued over her injuries, and the city settled the case for more than $26,000, court records show.

In August 1992, while on duty, Helle shot and killed a 21-year-old man who had broken into a closed nightclub in the 1300 block of Culebra. Newspaper accounts said Helle saw the man through a broken window in the business and told him to stop and get on his knees, but the man reached into his waistband and pulled out a dark object. It turned out to be a can of Mace. It looked like part of a gun, Helle said in an interview. He was cleared in the shooting.

A year later, an hour or so into his shift, he heard an “e tone” over the police radio, which alerts officers to a reported shooting. It was at his own house.

“Imagine the horror,” Helle said. “It’s a part of our life we wish would have never happened.”

One of his sons, John, then 3, had found a gun under a pillow and accidentally shot himself in the abdomen. He survived — Helle credits medical staff at University Hospital — and it “scared the living (expletive) out of me,” he said.

John Helle and his brother now are SAPD officers.

On Feb. 2, 2007, Mike Helle was off-duty in his personal vehicle when it was hit in a five-car pileup on Interstate 10. He was in intensive care for several days, with broken bones and bad cuts on his face and his body. He spent weeks recovering and thought he would be medically retired.

“There wasn’t the support from the (union) leadership I thought there would be,” he said, prompting his decision to run for the presidency the next year.

The union under his leadership has helped the spouses of injured officers financially and with moral support, he said. The membership also has paid for lodging for spouses of out-of-town officers in San Antonio for surgery or medical procedures.

“It’s not enough to say it’s a brotherhood,” he said. “We need to make a point that we are there for our guys.”

The San Antonio police contract permits the union president to work full time on union matters. Helle is paid about $73,000 a year by the city and does not get paid overtime if he responds after hours for union business. The union pays him a monthly $500 stipend.

“I’m available 24/7,” Helle said. “I think I’m grossly underpaid.”

The stipend comes from union dues, according to partial union records obtained by the San Antonio Express-News. The average officer pays about $108 a month — which is split among SAPOA, its benevolent fund, its political action committee, and the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, the records show.

By comparison, Patrick Lynch, the president of the largest union representing New York police officers, draws two salaries — one from the city and one from the union, with both in the mid-$60,000 range, the New York Post reported in 2010.

“A lot of my job is mitigating many of the departmental — I wouldn’t say grievances, but issues — and work through those so we avoid contractual grievances,” Helle said. “I get a broad spectrum of issues we have to troubleshoot and resolve.”

It’s not just a hard job because of the city — the membership, he notes, can be fickle.

“You always have to make the bar of expectation of delivery of service and customer service higher than the previous guy,” he said. “We always have room for improvement. But I always want to make sure that this administration I’m a member of is remembered for, ‘Hey, this guy really took care of us.’”

gcontreras@express-news.net

News Research Director Mike Knoop contributed to this

report.

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