San Antonio – Bexar County law enforcement agencies have a choice: either quickly release body camera video of incidents in which their deputies or officers seriously hurt or kill people, or risk losing funding.
On Tuesday, the Bexar County Commissioners Court unanimously passed a policy to have law enforcement agencies automatically release video of “critical incidents” within 10 days, with some exceptions, or explain why the release has been delayed.
The new policy’s definition of critical incidents includes cases where an officer shoots someone that results in serious injury or death; other uses of force that result in serious injury or death; all deaths of an arrestee or detainee in care of the county; and any other encounter wherein the head of that agency determines it serves a “law enforcement purpose.”
The policy, which would cover sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers, constables and fire marshals, is similar to that of the San Antonio Police Department’s, but with a much faster timeline.
The county’s various law enforcement agencies don’t necessarily have to follow the 10-day timeline, but commissioners made it clear those agencies’ body camera funding would be contingent upon complying with the policy.
“Bexar County is made up of a lot of different elected officials, and we can’t tell an elected official what to do. But we write the checks,” Judge Nelson Wolff told reporters after the meeting.
While approving the policy, commissioners also approved two new civilian positions at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office to help manage body cam footage.
Though BCSO has a body cam policy, it does not currently include a timeline for automatically releasing footage. Meanwhile, Precinct 3 Commissioner Trish DeBerry said families seeking video of incidents have sued the county.
“There is no reason to have body cameras in place if we are not going to release video,” DeBerry said.
The new policy includes exceptions to releasing video of an incident, such as cases involving domestic violence or when it is a recording of a juvenile suspect.
Reasons for delaying the release could also include: protecting the safety of people involved, protecting the integrity of an active investigation, protecting confidential sources, or protecting the suspect’s constitutional rights.
Those reasons are also included within SAPD’s policy.
County staff, who researched other law enforcement agencies’ policies, originally recommended a 60-day timeline for releasing the video to keep in line with SAPD.
However, other Texas police departments the county looked at, had much quicker timelines for releasing video. Houston Police, for instance, had a 30-day turnaround for critical incident video. Dallas Police - just 72 hours.
Two other sheriff’s offices, though - Harris County and El Paso County - had unspecified time frames, similar to BCSO’s current policy.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar had offered a 30-day turnaround as a possibility but said his office needs some technological upgrades to do that efficiently.
Parts of the video, like license plates and children’s faces, currently have to be redacted manually, Salazar said, which can be time-consuming when there are multiple cameras involved. However, the sheriff said new camera technology makes it easier to redact portions of the videos automatically.
Trying to get a jump on Tuesday’s commissioner court discussion, Salazar told reporters Monday about his attempts to bundle the purchase of new body cameras and Tasers together for $9.4 million as a way to save money.
The request bothered DeBerry, who was the one to suggest a 10-day time frame.
“You know, I feel like this court has been held hostage - that we needed to approve the 10s of millions of dollars in equipment without having a body camera release policy in place,” DeBerry told Salazar Tuesday.
Salazar, though, used similar language to DeBerry when speaking to reporters later.
“When you’re holding life-saving equipment hostage on whether I agree to a, b, or c, I’ll have to see what a, b, or c is to figure out if I can even abide by it. I certainly want to, but again, I can’t over-promise,” Salazar said.
Commissioners said the policy is meant to be retroactive and cover previous incidents, too, such as the August 2020 shooting of Damian Daniels. Though Daniels’ family has seen video of the shooting, which they say is different from how Salazar has described the incident, it has not been released publicly.
After the meeting, Salazar told reporters his office would release video of the Daniels shooting as soon as his office could procure the updated body cam technology he’s seeking and get people trained on it.
But since any possibility of commissioners approving money for that technology would appear to hinge upon BCSO complying with the policy first, it’s unclear when the public might start to see these videos appear.