How did body cam video of a fatal police shooting fall through the cracks?

Attorney for family: “That’s insane. That’s just extreme incompetence”

Attorney representing family of woman killed by SAPD officer weighs in on new bodycam footage release
Attorney representing family of woman killed by SAPD officer weighs in on new bodycam footage release

San Antonio – More than two years after Hannah Westall was shot and killed by a San Antonio Police Officer, her family’s attorney is both shocked and fuming he found footage they had been told didn’t exist.

“For two years, the family and I -- the family, long before I was involved -- was told that there was no body cam by even SAPD Internal Affairs who was -- who they did speak to -- that there was no body cam,” Adam Cortez told KSAT on Thursday.

The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office has also said it was unaware until recently that the clip existed and that it would now re-examine Westall’s death and present the case to a new grand jury. The SAPD Homicide Unit, which handled the criminal investigation into the shooting also appears to have been in the dark.

And though the Internal Affairs Unit knew about the clip, they didn’t let the Homicide Unit know.

So how did it happen?

Cortez says he found the 18 seconds of footage a few days ago in a trove of files the City Attorney’s office sent to him as part of the discovery process for a wrongful death lawsuit Westall’s family had filed in federal court.

The mostly soundless clip begins in the middle of SAPD Sgt. David Perry shooting Westall, who was carrying a non-functional replica Uzi BB gun in the back of her waistband, in the parking lot of a North Side shopping center on March 20, 2019. Though the video does not appear to provide much new information on the shooting, which was also captured on previously released dashboard camera footage, the fact it exists at all surprised Cortez.

And then that shocked me because the district attorney’s office was unaware of it. It may have turned out they actually had it and didn’t know, but they were told that there was none,” Cortez said. “And their investigation was conducted based on a dash cam with no audio. Now, we have a body cam that for some reason starts in the middle of the shooting and then is turned on. The audio is turned on toward the end, and then it’s turned off completely. And I haven’t gotten a rational explanation for that.”

The City of San Antonio released a statement Thursday from City Attorney Andy Segovia, which said the short clip had been created during Perry’s unsuccessful efforts to turn on his body camera. However, when homicide investigators went to review video, Segovia says the clip was “not apparently available.” When Internal Affairs looked for it later on as part of its administrative investigation, though, it was.

Because of federal law prohibiting coordination between criminal and administrative investigations, Segovia said IA did not tell homicide investigators about the clip.

When SAPD ultimately passed the case file onto the DA’s office, the body camera clip was not included, according to a Wednesday statement from a DA spokesperson, and the lead investigator “represented” there was none available. According to the statement, the office “recently discovered” the body camera video was included in the Internal Affairs file it had also obtained.

A spokeswoman for the DA’s office on Thursday declined to respond to follow-up questions from KSAT on Thursday about how long the DA’s office had the video versus when it became aware it existed, citing the fact the case is again under review.

Segovia’s full statement is below:

“The footage provided as part of the federal lawsuit is a “pre-event buffer” clip, which was created as Officer Perry unsuccessfully attempted to start his body cam. When activated, body cameras will also generate a “pre-event buffer” clip designed to capture 30 seconds of video prior to the officer activating their camera. This clip is approximately 17 seconds because Officer Perry mistakenly turned the camera off while trying to activate the camera, effectively stopping the recording and the 30-second fail-safe. The “pre-event buffer” video was not apparently available when video from the incident was reviewed by the Homicide Unit following the shooting. However, later, when Internal Affairs (IA) reviewed current up-loaded video footage as part of the administrative investigation into the shooting, the “pre-event buffer” clip was available. Federal law prohibits the commingling of criminal and administrative investigations. Consequently, IA did not communicate the existence of the “pre-event buffer clip” to Homicide. The “pre-event buffer” video clip is consistent with the activity captured on the COBAN. The process of collecting relevant documents for litigation included the footage of the attempted start and was turned over to plaintiff’s counsel as part of the federal discovery process.”

Cortez says SAPD should have made the body camera video public “as soon as reasonably practical,” which he believes would have fixed the issue of which investigators knew about its existence.

He also had harsh words for the homicide investigator.

“The lead detective needs to uncover and produce to the district attorney all relevant evidence. And body cam evidence, that’s pretty relevant,” Cortez said. “And it’s insane to think that he didn’t bother looking, or didn’t make sure that there was or wasn’t. And any glitches shouldn’t come out in July of 2021 for a shooting that took place in March 2019. That’s insane. That’s just extreme incompetence, and there’s no other way to put that.”

An SAPD spokeswoman said that, preliminarily, the homicide investigator would not be facing any discipline, noting “that this was not intentional in any way.”

The city says Sgt. Perry, who previously avoided any charges for the shooting after the initial investigation, remains on full duty.


About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.