Should district attorneys play a bigger role in releasing police shooting videos?

St. Mary’s professor says DA offices need to have well-developed, written policies for releasing police shooting footage

The Bexar County District Attorney's Office has no formal policy for releasing police shooting footage. (Joshua Saunders, KSAT)

SAN ANTONIOEditor’s note: This story is part of a Defenders series on footage of police shootings in San Antonio. Read the full investigation here.

The district attorney’s offices for the counties that include major police departments in Texas tend to take tentative approaches to releasing footage of officers shooting suspects, a months-long investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders found.

These agencies, which handle prosecutions of officers if and when they are charged in connection to a shooting, also have the authority to release footage from these incidents.

The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office “does not have a formal policy for the release of dash camera and body-worn camera footage,” a spokesperson in the DA’s office told KSAT. "All of our public information requests, including requests for dash camera and body-worn camera footage, are processed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act.”

DA officials, in a letter sent to the attorney general’s office in late August, asked to withhold footage of SAPD officers shooting and killing Tomas Hernandez because it is still part of a criminal investigation.

Hernandez was shot six times by officers in June 2019 after they had successfully talked him down from the ledge of a downtown highway overpass.

Hernandez was killed by officers after reaching for a weapon that turned out to be a knife, officials previously said.

DA officials in Bexar County also declined to release footage from the shooting deaths of Daniel Moncada and Jeremy Ponce, killed in separate incidents by SAPD officers on the same day in March 2019, claiming in letters to the AG that neither case resulted in a criminal conviction or deferred adjudication for any of the officers involved.

The AG’s office this month allowed the DA to withhold the footage from all three shootings.

A spokesperson for the Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney’s Office said the immediate release of dash camera and body-worn camera footage is the decision of the individual law enforcement agency and that the DA’s office there releases footage only after the grand jury has issued its decision in the case.

A spokesperson for the Dallas County DA said no evidence, including video, will be released until after a case is adjudicated and a formal records request has been submitted.

Officials in Travis County, citing the pending investigation exemption, declined to release footage of the shooting death of Fred Babcock last September by Austin Police officers.

Babcock, 74, was shot and killed during a standoff after firing several rounds at SWAT officers, APD officials previously said.

Asked if the Travis County DA’s office has a formal policy, a spokesperson said via email:

“Our policy, although it is not formalized in writing, is to object to the release of video, only when, in the opinion of the District Attorney, the release would impede, compromise, or improperly prejudice a pending criminal prosecution.”

An official with the Harris County DA referred the Defenders back to the individual agencies responsible for the shootings since they are “the originators of any such records.”

St. Mary’s University School of Law Professor Geary Reamey said DA offices, much like police departments, need to create well-developed written policies that take into account storage, privacy rights and ultimately the dissemination of this type of footage.

“Yes, it does surprise me and that’s not a good thing,” said Reamey, when asked if he was surprised prosecutors in large Texas counties have not created policies laying out how police shooting footage will be released.

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.