SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales on Friday announced the creation of a new civil rights division that will focus specifically on in-custody deaths, police shootings and excessive force cases involving area law enforcement personnel.
The four-person unit, consisting of two prosecutors, an investigator and a victim’s advocate, is still pending approval by county commissioners and is projected to cost around $385,000 a year.
Approval could take place as soon as next week, county officials said.
“The benefit is that, in theory, it should expedite the process,” said Gonzales, flanked by Judge Nelson Wolff, Sheriff Javier Salazar and members of the DA’s office.
The DA’s special crimes division had previously handled cases when officers and deputies shot or killed someone.
Christine Del Prado, the head of that division, revealed Friday the unit has 23 pending cases, 11 of them involving death.
Gonzales said his office has already ended a practice that took place under the previous administration of quickly providing clearance letters to officers and deputies, allowing them to quickly return to duty.
“We’re not involved in clearing anybody until we get an entire file in our office and until we’ve had a chance to review everything,” said Gonzales.
The KSAT 12 Defenders in early August requested a list of all fatal officer and deputy shootings since the start of 2018 and the dates these cases were presented to a grand jury.
DA officials have still not provided the records, claiming in an email Friday the information was not readily available and is taking longer than expected to release.
Gonzales did confirm that under a previous administration, officers were “cleared” of wrongdoing without evidence ever being presented to a grand jury.
He called that practice “problematic.”
Judge Wolff, who has been very critical of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office’s handling of the Aug. 25 shooting death of veteran Damian Daniels, applauded the creation of the civil rights division.
"When it happens it gives the public assurance that there’s been a thorough investigation.
Gonzales said his agency began to look at its practices after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May, and believes the creation of a standalone unit is the best step to take.
Gonzales, however, declined to commit to creating a video release policy for cases when officers and deputies shoot people.
He said Friday it would not be appropriate to release footage in any case his office intends to take to a grand jury and that he does not foresee doing so even after an officer or deputy has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“That would be unfair to that person to release any evidence of an allegation of a crime,” said Gonzales.
Instead, Gonzales said his office will release letters to the public explaining key evidence after it is presented to a grand jury.
Gonzales confirmed that San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus is on board with the creation of the unit.
McManus released the following statement Friday morning:
“The creation of this new division has no impact on the San Antonio Police Department’s policy of sending all shootings and custodial deaths involving SAPD officers to the DA’s Office for an independent review. We will continue to provide all evidence and cooperate with these investigations as we always have.”