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KSAT Explains: The debate over body cameras

Episode 17 takes a look at the transparency, possible shortcomings of body-worn cameras

SAN ANTONIO – It’s a debate that’s taken center stage over the past several years. Should police departments release body-worn camera footage after they shoot and kill someone?

The question is part of a larger conversations happening across the nation and here in San Antonio. More people are calling for increased police reform, accountability and transparency.

In this episode of KSAT Explains, we take a look at the arguments for and against releasing footage from body-worn cameras, the possible drawbacks and we’ll share the stories of two men killed after encounters with law enforcement officers. (Watch the full episode in the video player above.)

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Two stories with the same ending

Damian Daniels and Charles Roundtree were two different men with different encounters with local law enforcement. But the end result for both was the same. They were shot and killed by someone in uniform.

Damian Daniels and Charles Roundtree
Damian Daniels and Charles Roundtree (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

It has been two years since Charles Rountree was shot and killed by a San Antonio police officer when he was 18 years old. But the pain is still fresh for his family.

“He was a clown,” Bernice Roundtree, Charles' adoptive mother said. “He loved to make everyone laugh. He was just a joy to be around.”

On Oct. 17, 2018, Charles was shot at a house on Roberts Street. San Antonio police said they were responding to a call for an assault.

Body-worn camera footage shows the moments SAPD Officer Steve Casanova walks up to the house. He never identifies himself as a police officer and the shooting happens in seconds.

“It hurt because we didn’t know for sure if it was him until they came and identified his body,” Patricia Castillo, Charles' biological mother said.

A grand jury voted not to indict Casanova, who remains on the force. Charles' family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the police department.

“They got these body cams to help us, but is it?” Bernice said. “It doesn’t even matter. With or without the body cam they’re still killing us.”

(Watch body camera footage of the deadly encounter and hear from Charles' family in the video player below.)

Another family who understands this heartache and frustration is the family of former U.S. Army Sgt. Damian Lamar Daniels.

“We expect to put our trust in the people who are supposedly supposed to serve and protect,” Brendan Daniels, Damian’s brother said. “And they go and they kill him.”

Damian was shot and killed by a Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy on Aug. 25 outside his home on Liberty Field.

Brendan, who lives in Colorado, said he called for help because Damian was having a mental health episode.

The combat veteran had recently been accepted to the University of Texas at San Antonio. He wanted to study business and had dreams of opening his own business one day.

“He was always just a hard worker,” Annette Watkins, Damian’s mother said. “Everything he went for, he did his best.”

Watkins lives in the family’s home state of Alabama. Both she and Brendan are working with Grassroots Law Project to get the body camera footage of Damian’s shooting death released.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said Damian became aggressive with deputies, and grabbed a deputy’s stun gun. Later, Damian allegedly reached for his own gun.

There was a two minute struggle before Damian was shot twice. Salazar released photos from the body camera footage, and initially pledged transparency.

“I can tell you I will release this video as soon as it becomes practical,” Salazar said.

But three weeks later he told KSAT he was withholding the body camera video because it was an active investigation.

“If everyone can see what happened so that we can know the truth, I think that will be better off for our family and would be better off for the world,” Brendan said. “We can start to make change. Damian would want us to make change.”

(Hear more from Damian’s family in the video player below.)

Body cameras & local law enforcement agencies

The push for the use of body-worn cameras by local police officers is not that old. It dates back about five years. But by 2016, nearly half of U.S. Law enforcement agencies had outfitted officers with these cameras.

(Watch a timeline of BCSO and SAPD implementing body-worn cameras within their agencies in the video player below.)

But just because local law enforcement officers are outfitted with body-warn cameras, doesn’t mean everyone immediately gets to see that footage.

With a public appetite for police reform, more police departments across the state of Texas are creating policies for releasing footage of violent encounters. The San Antonio Police Department isn’t one of them.

Dallas, Arlington, Forth Worth and Austin Police Departments have all adopted policies that call for footage to be released after officers shoot someone.

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Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth’s policies all call for video release within days.

Austin’s new protocol was published in June. It came weeks after Austin police officers shot and killed Mike Ramos. The department’s guidelines now call for it to publish videos of certain encounters within 60 days. If they can not, they must explain why within 45 days of the shooting taking place.

“We want to do our best to share that information, but also at the same time be sensitive to the information that we are putting out there and sharing,” APD Cpl. Destiny Silva said.

Houston was the latest major city in Texas to create a policy. When that policy is implemented, the San Antonio Police Department will be the only major municipal police department in Texas without a policy for releasing footage.

In September, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for a full review of SAPD’s body camera footage policy. When we reached out to a city spokeswoman for a statement in late October, we were told there has been no update yet.

Arguments for against releasing footage

Few people argue that body cameras provide transparency. But some argue there are legitimate reasons why, in some cases, the public should not see footage. In some cases, it can reveal tactics used by officers.

“They’re not going to want to release that footage from an incident in which a case is still being investigates or in which a police officer might be subject to a misconduct charge," Donna Coltharp, law professor at St. Mary’s University said.

The footage could affect what happens in court, or any internal proceedings involving an officer.

“You don’t want to be showing your evidence to the public before you actually take it to trial," Howard Williams, a lecturer at Texas State University said. “The public’s right to know is one thing, but the defendant also has the right to a fair trial.”

Williams spent 36 years in law enforcement. Eleven of those years were spent as chief of police for the City of San Marcos. He believes eventually all footage should be seen by the public.

Both Williams and Coltharp agree that releasing footage can help improve the dynamic between communities and officers.

“We end up getting problems that we’re expected to try to solve or deal with that are much larger sociological problems than what the police are trying to deal with,” Williams said. “This footage will help with that problem if the public can see more of what we do and how we actually do it.”

Home surveillance, cell phone footage offer another view

More and more often law enforcement interactions with the public are documented by the public. Surveillance video has at times provided key evidence of these encounters.

Cell phone cameras have also emerged as an important way for witnesses and even people involved in a conflict with officers to ultimately hold them accountable.

(Watch Dillon Collier break down the digital evolution in the video player below.)

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