SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio police officers accused of violating the department’s body-worn camera policy are rarely suspended, a months-long investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders found.
During the three-year period from June 2018 to June 2021, SAPD officials reviewed 256 allegations of body-worn camera infractions. In 42 of those cases, slightly over 16 percent, was an officer suspended one day or longer, records obtained from the department show.
During those three years, SAPD officers recorded more than 5.6 million videos. SAPD policy requires officers to activate the camera when they are investigating and interacting with the public.
Generally, the infractions center around an officer failing to turn on the camera or muting it at an inappropriate time. Allegations can be lodged internally by SAPD staff who review body-worn camera footage or from members of the public.
SAPD officials defended the low suspension rate, claiming the circumstances of alleged violations help determine the range of punishment and that the department relies on a progressive discipline model in these cases. But local activists say the figures are evidence of a relatively toothless discipline system that does little to disincentivize misconduct.
“Part of this changing the culture of policing is making sure that those that are committing misconduct are being disciplined for their actions,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of ACT 4 SA, a local organization continuing the push to reimagine public safety in San Antonio.
Years of suspension records reviewed by the Defenders show that officers are rarely disciplined for the first instance of a BWC infraction.
“If an officer knows they can get away one, two, three, four times, whatever it is, without activating their body camera, whether it’s the audio, the visual or both, there’s an issue there. There’s no punishment for them to learn accountability and to change that behavior,” Tomas said.
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Tomas previously played a prominent role in the effort to reform SAPD through Proposition B, a ballot measure, that would have repealed collective bargaining rights for the city’s police officers. Activists point to the collective bargaining process as a reason for significant protections afforded to officers accused of misconduct.
The proposition was ultimately struck down by San Antonio voters by fewer than 3,500 votes this summer.
Tomas’ mission to reform continues while leading a group that focuses on public safety topics such as mental health crisis response, monitoring ongoing contract negotiations between the city and its police union and attempts to amend the department’s civilian review board.
The most recent version of SAPD’s body-worn camera policy took effect in December 2019 and allows officers to stop recording or to mute their cameras in limited circumstances only, such as while conferring with undercover officers.
SAPD suspension records show body-worn camera violations are often tacked on to other rules infractions by officers or result in a suspension of just a few days.
Activists point to the case of Officer Tim Garcia as an example of why the camera policy is vital to establishing evidence for the disciplinary process must be strictly enforced by the department.
Garcia was fired in early 2019, months after he was recorded on his own body-worn camera repeatedly using the N-word during the arrest of a young Black man at a downtown mall.
Though SAPD Chief William McManus stood by his decision to fire Garcia during the officer’s arbitration hearing, an arbitrator in late 2019 reversed the chief’s decision and shortened Garcia’s discipline to a 10-month suspension.
The incident may have never caught the attention of SAPD leaders had Garcia not activated his camera prior to the altercation.
“This is not just accountability and transparency to the public to protect us as community members, but even other officers who are in some situation that was escalated by an officer acting out,” said Tomas.
SAPD officials declined to make anyone from the department available for an on-camera interview to answer questions about the suspension figures.
In a written statement, an SAPD spokesperson repeated the suspension figures previously released to the Defenders and wrote:
“The circumstances surrounding the specific body-worn camera violation guide the range of punishment. While following a progressive discipline model, an officer may not receive a suspension for an initial body-worn camera violation but may receive an increased discipline for a subsequent violation of the same policy.”
In the 214 cases of alleged camera violations in which an officer was not suspended, SAPD officers may have received less severe discipline such as a written reprimand or counseling. State law, however, prevents the department from releasing records unless the discipline results in a suspension of one day or longer.
Tomas also criticized SAPD’s body camera release policy, claiming the department has yet to establish clearly defined rules for what footage is released and how much footage from a critical incident the public ultimately gets to see.
SAPD officials late last year announced that footage from critical incidents, when officers shoot people or use force that results in death, would begin being released to the public.
After refusing to release footage from the first three critical incidents that took place after the changes went into effect, SAPD began to release edited videos earlier this year.