SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio is part of a shrinking group of large cities in Texas that does not release footage after its officers shoot people, a months-long investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders found.
While police departments in Fort Worth, Dallas, Arlington and Austin have all created guidelines for making body-worn and dashboard camera video public after these encounters, San Antonio has failed to implement a policy for when, how and if such footage is released.
With public appetite for police reform increasing in San Antonio and across the country, Mayor Ron Nirenberg has called for such a policy to be created to increase transparency and more quickly provide answers to questions about the incidents.
GMSA@9 Debrief: How San Antonio stacks up against other cities when it comes to releasing video of police shootings
Police reform experts who spoke to the Defenders in recent weeks have called the decision by San Antonio officials to wait so long to implement a policy or commit to the release of footage problematic. Releasing video of the incidents, they say, often serves public and law enforcement interests, including government transparency, police accountability and trust within the community.
The Houston Police Department, like San Antonio’s, does not have rules specific to releasing footage when its officers shoot someone. Still, HPD earlier this month published a 16-minute clip of a fatal encounter between officers and 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez.
The decision to release the video came three months after Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo publicly defended withholding the same footage, saying in large part he was keeping it private at the request of family members of Chavez and other suspects shot and killed by HPD officers this year. Ultimately, though, the department released the footage “in the spirit of transparency,” he said.
WARNING: The links below include footage of fatal shootings that some viewers may find disturbing
What other departments are doing
In the Metroplex, major police departments release footage within days of officers shooting a suspect.
The Forth Worth and Dallas police departments have created a 72-hour timeline for release, while the Arlington Police Department makes the video public within 24 to 48 hours, according to their respective critical incident policies.
The Austin Police Department instituted a footage release policy at the start of June. It calls for video evidence in critical incidents involving APD, including shootings by officers, to be released to the public within 60 days. If APD officials determine it will take longer than 60 days to make the footage public, they must provide within 45 days of the incident an explanation for the delay.
Austin’s policy was written and instituted weeks after the shooting death of Mike Ramos. Ramos, who was unarmed and at first complied with officers, was shot and killed after he got back into his vehicle and tried to drive away from them in late April.
Footage released by APD officials in late July included the original 911 call that prompted officers to respond, footage of the officers discussing how to approach Ramos and then footage of their interaction with him before they shot and killed him. APD officials made several redactions to the footage, including disguising the voice of the 911 caller, before releasing it.
“I believe that the public has an absolute right to see that footage as soon as possible,” said Merrick Bobb, an attorney who has helped some of the country’s largest police departments manage the risks of police misconduct for nearly 30 years.
“Holding back because you don’t like what the information shows doesn’t help you at all in the long run,” said Bobb, whose work assisting law enforcement dates back to the aftermath of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers in March 1991.
Kevin LaChapelle, a former California police officer who is now a criminal justice professor and consults on anti-violence projects and police accountability efforts, agreed.
“The best practice is certainly to release the video footage as soon as possible,” said LaChapelle. “Back in the day, it was different. It was preservation of evidence and you don’t want people to see it because you potentially are going to interview witnesses that then could frame their story around the video. However, now we’re in a different world, we’re in a different time."
LaChapelle said he believes 10 days is a reasonable amount of time for police departments to wait before releasing video publicly.
“Now more than ever it’s important that police departments are transparent, especially with that footage,” said LaChapelle.
What about San Antonio?
San Antonio officials have repeatedly withheld footage of officers shooting suspects in recent years, using a combination of exemptions granted under state law. Those include some carveouts in the Texas Public Information Act, as well as a section of the Texas Occupations Code that states footage should not be released until all criminal matters have been adjudicated unless it furthers a law enforcement purpose.
But the laws are permissive, not restrictive, a First Amendment expert said. Law enforcement agencies are provided the discretion to release or to withhold footage under Texas law, said Paul Walter, attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. That discretion is evidenced by the release of footage hours after an incident by other major police departments.
However, open record requests for body-worn camera footage sent by KSAT journalists days after a police shooting are typically denied by San Antonio officials. Instead, city officials claim in letters to the Texas Attorney General’s Office that releasing the footage could potentially interfere with the pending criminal investigation. The AG’s office, charged with enforcing public information law in Texas, grants virtually all “ongoing investigation” requests from law enforcement agencies.
But even once criminal investigations are closed in San Antonio, police and city officials find another exception in state law to block the release of footage.
For instance, after Tomas Hernandez was shot and killed by SAPD officers in June 2019, a request from the Defenders for body-worn and dashboard camera footage of the fatal shooting was denied.
Officials had asked the AG’s office to allow them to withhold video from the shooting since the case had not resulted in a criminal conviction or deferred adjudication for any of the officers involved, one exception allowed under the Texas Public Information Act. Their request was granted.
San Antonio officials have cited the same exemption in denying the Defenders' requests for footage from the fatal shootings of Jeremy Ponce and Daniel Moncada, who were shot and killed by SAPD officers in separate incidents on the same day in March 2019.
AG officials, to date, have not ruled on whether SAPD must make footage from either of those fatal shootings public.
San Antonio officials this summer used the same lack-of-a-conviction exemption to at first deny the Defenders' request for dashboard camera footage from the shooting death of Hannah Westall.
Officials ultimately released several minutes of video only after this reporter pointed out that the city had already provided a copy of it to an attorney representing Westall’s family.
An SAPD sergeant shot and killed Westall last year while she was in possession of a non-functional replica of an Uzi in the parking lot of a North Side shopping center.
While SAPD Chief William McManus claimed at the scene that Westall pointed the weapon at the sergeant prior to being killed, a narrative the department maintained for well over a year, dashcam video from the sergeant’s patrol vehicle refuted that account.
Days after the Defenders investigation, SAPD officials amended Westall’s in-custody death report to the state to reflect what had actually taken place.
Those discrepancies are one reason releasing footage of the incident early on is important, police reform experts said.
McManus did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.
City officials may soon have no choice but to create a policy for releasing footage soon after officers shoot someone.
Earlier this month, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for a complete review of SAPD’s body-worn camera policies. The issue has not yet been put on the agenda at City Hall.
Nirenberg told the Defenders he was surprised SAPD has no guidelines specifically for releasing footage after officers shoot a person.
“We have these very high-profile events. There’s a lot of conflicting accounts that really can only be settled once there is some viewing of video,” said Nirenberg, who added that his preference is to release footage soon after the shootings take place.
“I want to make sure we have a policy in place that is clear and can be viewed and sets expectations internally, but also for the public, about how body cam footage would be treated,” said Nirenberg.
The mayor’s comments came after he called for footage of an SAPD officer shooting and killing Darrell Zemault Sr. to be released as soon as the criminal investigation had been completed
Zemault, who was wanted on domestic violence warrants, was shot and killed in front of his home after SAPD officials said he resisted arrest then grabbed a detective’s gun after it fell from its holster.
City officials have so far refused to release body camera footage of the fatal shooting.
A city spokesperson, when asked by the Defenders what state law prevents the video from being released now, cited the section of the occupations code that relates to video recordings as evidence.
The section states that body-worn camera footage that shows a peace officer using deadly force may not be deleted, destroyed or released to the public until any related criminal cases and administrative investigations have concluded. The same law, however, states that footage can be released before then if the department believes it furthers a law enforcement purpose.
“I think this is one of the most difficult questions in contemporary policing,” said Geary Reamey, professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Reamey said departments should have at the very least a working framework on how and when to release officer shooting footage.
“If you release all information about all ongoing investigations, you lose the possibility of corroboration, because you’ve now exposed everything to the public,” said Reamey.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s release of video in the Nicolas Chavez shooting months after he refused to do so shows how the issue of releasing footage of police shootings has evolved in recent months, as calls for police accountability have rung out across the country.
Acevedo’s about-face came weeks after HPD officials confirmed to the Defenders that the department has no specific policy for releasing footage publicly, only that requests will be handled in accordance with state law.
Chavez, who was suffering a mental health crisis, was shot more than 20 times in April by law enforcement who had fanned out in front of him.
Acevedo released the footage Sept. 10 while announcing the firing of four officers who responded to the scene the night Chavez was killed.
The move came just months after Acevedo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner hosted a press conference, on the heels of HPD officers shooting and killing six people in five weeks, including Chavez.
During that press conference, which included some family members of people recently killed by HPD officers, Acevedo and Turner each provided a list of reasons why police shooting footage should not be made public.
“It’s important to put a face and a perspective that we as human beings need to broaden our field of vision and understand impacts and understand that once these videos are released, that they go on these websites for generations of families to see,” said Acevedo.
One of the first people to speak during the June event was Chavez’s widow, who said while sobbing that she did not want footage of her late husband’s death released because she hoped to protect their children from it.
HPD officials declined a request from the Defenders to interview Acevedo for this story.
Asked about Acevedo’s about-face decision to release the Chavez shooting footage months later, an HPD spokesperson referred this reporter to a Twitter clip of HPD’s Sept. 10 press conference.
During that press conference, Acevedo said the footage from several angles was being released “in the spirit of transparency.”
Response to open record requests
While many other major cities have adopted video release policies, they rarely release the raw, unedited recordings and often ask the AG’s office to allow them to withhold those under the exception in state law. Police reform experts say that shows that adopting a policy is only a first step to improving transparency, accountability and public trust.
The Defenders this summer requested copies of body-worn camera and dashboard camera footage from in-custody deaths or shootings involving Fort Worth, Dallas, Arlington, Austin and Houston police officers.
Only the Fort Worth Police Department provided a partial release of the footage, a two-minute clip showing the October 2019 shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson in her own home by a Fort Worth police officer.
That officer, Aaron Dean, was indicted for murder late last year.
After the Defenders requested footage from the May 2020 death of Gamaliel Sanchez, Dallas city officials placed the request in a “catastrophe hold.” That designation essentially postpones all state-mandated deadlines for responding to records requests due to limited staffing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Dallas police officials previously said Sanchez died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after shooting and injuring an officer after running from them.
While officials with the Arlington Police Department released footage of Nicholas Walker being shot and killed outside his home shortly after the incident last September, they denied a request from the Defenders for the same footage.
Officials with the Austin Police Department denied the Defenders' request for footage from the police shooting death last September of Fred Babcock, claiming their critical incident policy published in June is not retroactive.
Babcock, 74, was shot and killed during a standoff after firing several rounds at SWAT officers, APD officials previously said.