SAN ANTONIO – Two months after a San Antonio police officer shot and killed her younger brother, Debra Montez Felder and SAPD officials are nowhere near being on the same page about the last moments of his life.
The ongoing dispute has carried on long after Felder and her husband were able to watch body-worn camera footage of the shooting.
John Pena Montez, a 57-year-old military veteran, died March 26 after officers were called to a home in the 1300 block of Brighton Avenue.
Montez’s family members have described him as being in the midst of a mental health crisis, more likely to cause serious harm to himself that night than anyone else.
SAPD records, however, indicate that Montez slapped his common-law wife in the face, came within arms length of her while armed with a knife and was a threat to her and three children at the home after he got inside by shoulder-checking a door.
The main point of dispute — whether Montez lunged at officers before being fatally shot by one of them.
Felder and her husband, Charles Felder, both of whom were allowed to watch body camera footage of the shooting alongside SAPD officials during a meeting at Public Safety Headquarters in late April, claim that Montez did not lunge at officers.
“When the word ‘lunge’ came up, I thought back and I said ‘where is this lunge being talked about done by John that would have justified the shooting?’” said Charles Felder, during a recent interview with the KSAT 12 Defenders.
An SAPD incident report states that Montez, while holding a knife, lunged at two officers, later identified as Stephen Ramos and Douglas Meynig.
Meynig, who the Felders’ described as being farther away from Montez than Ramos, unsuccessfully deployed his stun gun twice.
Ramos, a one-year-veteran of SAPD, then fired at Montez, the incident report states.
Montez, who suffered gunshot wounds to his upper chest, died at the scene.
Ramos remains on administrative duty, while Meynig is currently active and assigned to patrol, an SAPD spokeswoman confirmed earlier this month.
“John was a loving guy. When at his best, he was a joker. He was the center of our gatherings,” said Debra Montez Felder.
Enhancing public trust and increase transparency
SAPD introduced a body-worn camera video release policy in December, claiming at the time that it was created to enhance public trust and increase transparency following so called “critical incidents.”
These incidents include interactions between the public and officers that result in serious injury or death and other police encounters in which the chief of police determines that releasing footage would serve a law enforcement purpose.
However, the first three fatal shootings by SAPD officers since the policy went into effect resulted in no footage being released.
After San Antonio police shot and killed Eric Mejia, who was armed with a handgun, outside South Park Mall in late January, SAPD Chief William McManus ultimately decided not to release officer body camera footage publicly.
McManus, in a letter to City Manager Erik Walsh in late March, stated that bystander footage of the shooting repeatedly shown on TV and social media had caused Mejia’s mother “great distress.”
“Based on the circumstances surrounding the incident, I do not believe there is compelling law enforcement or public interest that would cause me to go against the wishes of the decedent’s mother. Therefore, the body worn camera video will not be released,” McManus said in the letter.
San Antonio police officials then opted not to release footage of the next two fatal shootings by its officers: the death of Montez and the death of 39-year-old Thomas Mack.
When announcing that video would not be released publicly, an SAPD press release stated the decisions were based off of each case involving domestic violence.
SAPD officials refused to make McManus available for an interview for this story and declined to allow KSAT 12 Defenders to view footage of the shooting of Montez.
Pressed for a more thorough explanation of why domestic violence-related incidents do not fall under the body-camera video release policy, unless they serve a law enforcement purpose, an SAPD spokeswoman released the following statement via email:
“When clarifying our policy on the release of critical incident video, Department leadership consulted with community partners, including local experts who have years of experience working with survivors of domestic violence. The Department was advised that in most, if not all cases, a survivor’s right to privacy far outweighs the public’s interest in such critical incidents. In addition to this, officers and advocates alike see that many victims fear reporting their abuser to authorities altogether, and the Department’s premature release of information about their case, experts say, further aggravates that fear. Local leader Marta Prada Peláez explained that many victims don’t want the details of their trauma publicized — much less by the Department they called to protect them. She said publication of such information confirms to victims who are apprehensive to report that their trauma could potentially be widely publicized should they decide to report their abuser. And to put it plainly: If a victim is scared to come forward, it could very well cost them their life. With that in mind, the Department has tailored the policy to stress to survivors how serious we are about protecting their privacy.”
Peláez, during a phone interview this week, expanded on what advice she gave SAPD officials, stating that information being released publicly about domestic violence cases can be emotional triggers for victims or even increase the possibility they face real, physical danger from others.
“The need of the public to know something is overridden by the need to protect the victim,” said Peláez, the president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services.
While speaking generally about these types of cases, Peláez pointed out that even in incidents where a “perpetrator” is dead, alliances of that person could target the victim.
Montez’s family wants footage released
Debra Montez Felder, with several family members present, told the Defenders this month the family wants the footage of her brother’s death to be released.
“Release it. We want transparency. Help us get that transparency. If you know us, then you know that we want the truth,” said Debra Montez Felder.
She said the approximately 90-second clip, recorded by the body-worn camera of Ramos, did not provide a sufficient account of what happened near the entryway to the home that ended with her brother being shot and killed.
She said SAPD officials should release the body-worn camera footage of all officers who responded to the home that night, as well as the dashboard camera footage from their patrol vehicles.
“We want it. We demand it now. Show us the videos,” said Debra Montez Felder.
Both she and her husband described the viewing of the footage at headquarters as “hostile,” stating that Deputy Chief Anthony Maziek, who took part in the April 29 viewing, abruptly ended the meeting after the couple had been allowed to watch the short clip only twice.
“Is it showing something that you don’t want us to see? Or something you want us to see?” said Charles Felder, recalling what he asked SAPD officials the day of the viewing.
Adding to the animosity, according to the Felders’, SAPD’s decision to have a detective use a body-worn camera to record the couple watching the footage of the fatal shooting.
“Recording, essentially, me looking at the video of the killing of my brother,” said Debra Montez Felder.
She described Maziek as “aggressive” and claims that after the couple asked to view the footage a third time, Maziek told them it was a waste of time.
“The Department disagrees with this characterization and this is precisely why we record these interactions,” an SAPD spokeswoman said via email earlier this month.
She added that department rules require officers to utilize body-worn camera for all police interactions with the public.
“In addition, this creates a record that becomes part of the case file and ensures that the events are accurately and thoroughly documented,” the spokeswoman said via email.
The Defenders requested a copy of the video of this interaction, but an assistant city attorney on Monday blocked the video’s release, pending a ruling from the Texas Attorney General’s Office on whether the city can withhold it. The letter incorrectly stated that Felder’s brother was shot in February.
“To me, it’s confrontational,” said Kevin LaChapelle, a California-based police accountability expert.
He said SAPD officials in these situations should be compassionate, and attempt to recognize that they are dealing with a family who lost a loved one during an encounter with police.
LaChapelle, a former police officer who is now a criminal justice professor and consultant on anti-violence projects, said relying on a broad topic like domestic violence to steer a video release policy is the wrong approach.
“The whole purpose for body-worn cameras is for accountability. And so to dismiss that and disallow the public from access to that, to me is very concerning,” said LaChapelle. “I think to hunker down and create policies to prohibit transparency is a dangerous path.”
Officials with the Medical Examiner’s Office have not said if a written autopsy report for Montez’s death has been completed. A KSAT request for the record was forwarded by ME officials to its legal counsel on May 19.
An in-custody death report, submitted by SAPD to the Texas Attorney General’s Office April 28, states that officers witnessed Montez break into the home and that he lunged at officers with the knife pointed toward them.
The report states Montez was then shot twice in the chest.
SAPD officials have indicated that they will release footage from three other fatal shootings by officers, all of which took place during a five-day period last month. Among those shootings was the death of Joe Gomez, who took his own life after being shot twice by a San Antonio Park Police Department officer outside a San Antonio International Airport terminal on April 15.