Bexar County sets 10-day mandate to release body cam footage for sheriff’s office, county law enforcement
Bexar County Commissioners unanimously approved a requirement that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, Bexar County constables and the fire marshal must have a 10-day release policy for body cam footage in order to get funding for more camera equipment.
The policy puts into place a timeline where there was none previously. Although the sheriff’s office did have guidelines for body camera usage, there was not a set amount of time before footage would be released to the public.
Commissioners were set to debate a 60-day release policy but an amendment that proposed to reduce it down to 10 days was unanimously approved.
“It is not for every incident, it is for the critical incident — use of force, deadly force — those come more often than we’d like but not as often as every day,” said. Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert
An amendment by Pct. 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores adding the requirement that two staff members be available to process video was also approved.
“If we're going to say 10 days, then I think we need to give them (to) the staff. They need to make sure it happens in 10 days,” she said.
Earlier in the week, Sheriff Jaiver Salazar held a press conference saying he was proposing a 30-day release policy, the day before commissioners were to consider the 60-day release policy. Salazar said an item to approve a new expenditure in camera equipment was not included in Tuesday's agenda.
“We are certainly looking to evolve our policies to be more in keeping with best practices as far as timelines for release, but we’re also going to ask commissioners for help with regard to best practices on technology to facilitate the timely release,” he said.
Salazar said the time to order the equipment was on a time crunch. The company that supplies the office with its TASERs and body cameras, Axon, was offering a discount if the equipment was purchased as a bundle before the end of the year.
The sheriff’s office would purchase 550 cameras and 550 TASERs at what Salazer said was “2019 prices.” The total would have been about $9.4 million but that would only apply if ordered before Dec. 31. Expenditures like this must be approved by the commissioner’s court. If not approved, the price could potentially increase to $14 million in 2022 according to a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
On Monday, Salazar said his office does not have the capability to release video quickly without an upgrade to its equipment. Redaction requirements from the state — such as blurring the faces of uninvolved adults, children, and vehicle license plates — would take too much time to process without the technology upgrade.
“If you've got an hour worth of video that you need to redact all license plates and identify personal identifying features and children's faces and the faces of uninvolved witnesses, then the software that we're going to be upgrading to does that automatically. So it drastically decreases the labor time, thereby drastically decreasing the amount of time that it would take before you can release the video,” Salazar said.
Public release of body cam footage has been supported by commissioners, especially in the case of Damien Daniels who was killed in August 2020. Daniels was a military veteran whose family called sheriff’s deputies at his request during a mental health episode. He was killed during a physical scuffle with deputies.
Similar shootings have also ignited questions toward the San Antonio Police Department, like when Darrell Zemault Sr. was shot and killed by a police officer in September 2020. SAPD has a 60-day policy, but that timeline applies to how long the police chief has to make a decision on whether or not body cam footage can be released at all.
Similarly, the county’s policy states that the department head of the agency — like the sheriff — has 10 days to decide whether or not footage will be released. If they believe a video should not be released, they must provide a reason for the delay which will be reviewed by the District Attorney’s office. The policy lists potential reasons to delay release including protection and safety of the individuals involved, protect the integrity of an investigation, protect confidential sources, or protect the constitutional rights of the accused.
If a video is publicly released, it will remain on the department's website for 12 months. The department head then has up to three days prior to the release to notify the officers in the video, subjects upon whom force was used against or their attorneys, next of kin of the subject if they’re deceased, the county manager and district attorney. The county manager will then notify members of the commissioners court.
During the Tuesday commissioner’s court meeting, Pct. 3 Commissioner Trish DeBerry said she had been waiting since she entered office at the beginning of 2021 for policy on when body cam footage would be released.
“We have lawsuits that come forward to this county from families that have been waiting patiently, living in discomfort without closure, because they can’t get a video. And I’m going to go back to my original point — there is no reason why we have body cameras in place if we are not going to release video,” she said.
She expressed frustration at Salazar’s expenditure request saying previous requests were not made with a video release policy in place.
“You talk about the fact that you don't have the technology to be able to release video within 10 days — redacting, editing — and the representative from (Axon) just came up here and told us that he's got this capability,” she said.
Salazar responded with frustration of his own. “The technology he's talking about is what we're here asking for — that was taken off of the agenda. We were supposed to be here today talking about upgrading to the future,” he said.
DeBerry referenced previous expenditure requests. “I've asked you again and again, do not come forward with upgrades in body camera equipment without a policy, and it took us putting it on the agenda today to get a policy,” she said.
To date, the sheriff’s office has not released the body cam footage of the Daniels incident but instead only several still photos. Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales however has shown the video to Daniels’ family.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff expressed his own frustration multiple times on Tuesday that the Daniels video has not been released.
“These things have been sitting in there for months. What is so damn hard about releasing it? … Why is this a monster question? I don't get that,” he said.
Salazar did not provide a reason as to why Daniels’ video had not been made public since his death. However, earlier in the meeting, Wolff asked Salazar if the video would be released under the new policy to which Salzar replied “yes, sir.”
The Daniels family and their attorney Lee Merritt held a press conference outside of the Bexar County Courthouse shortly after the commissioner’s meeting. Although the focus was on calling for a grand jury, Merritt called again for the video to be made public.
“They released manipulative still images and put out a false narrative about Damien Daniels and what he did on the day that he was killed,” Merrit said. “The video needs to be released… because right now the potential jury pool is being tainted by a story that is demonstratively false.”