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San Antonio withholds body cam footage: Dodging transparency or protecting the Zemault family?

Courtesy of Celeste Brown

More than a year and a half after Darrell Zemault Sr. was killed by police during an attempted arrest, city attorneys are withholding body camera footage from being released to the public. But it’s uncertain whether the city is trying to dodge transparency or act upon the wishes of Zemault’s family.

In September 2020, a day after Zemualt was killed by police, Mayor Ron Nirenberg requested that the footage be released as soon as legally possible, following the completion of the investigation into the death.

Police reports from the death said that as officers attempted to arrest Zemault over two outstanding warrants, he pulled a gun from one of the officers’ holsters, and one of them shot him. A neighbor disputed the claim and said Zemault had been shot in the back as he walked into his home to call a lawyer.

Ultimately, officers were not found of any wrongdoing. The full investigation into his death has been closed since last fall, but the footage still has not been released.

On May 2, The San Antonio Express-News filed an open records request for the footage under the Texas Public Information Act. That is when city attorneys argued to the Texas Attorney General’s Office that they should not have to turn over any footage because of a law that allows city governments to withhold records when “the investigation did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication,” as is the case with this investigation.

According to the Express-News, their attorney had not yet decided how to respond.

Across the country, police departments and municipalities have refused to turn over bodycam or squad car footage after a shooting, leading to accusations of a coverup.

In the case of the murder of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old boy killed by a Chicago police officer in 2014, squad car footage was kept hidden until it was ordered released in late 2015. It also demonstrated major contradictions between statements made by officers on the scene and what actually happened.

However, in the case of the bodycam footage in the Zemault case, there may be more to the story. While city attorneys are making a legal argument about why they can withhold the footage, it may not be the reason they actually are.

According to District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, the city has taken its stance because of a request from the family not to release the footage.

“One of the only reasons I would say that it’s acceptable to withhold [footage], outside of what’s legal, would be, you know, if the family doesn’t want the footage out, then we don’t put the footage out,” he said. “And since I’ve had conversations with the city, that’s the reasoning.”

A spokesperson for the city did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

In response to coverage of the attempts to have body cam footage released, the Zemault family released a statement to the Express-News:

“Last fall, a year after the incident, our family had the opportunity to view the full footage and it was deeply traumatizing. We do not want other members of our family or our children to be subjected to ever having to view it. Two of the siblings opted out of viewing the footage, knowing how traumatizing it would be. If it were made public it would be inescapable and would require us to relive the trauma constantly,” the statement said.

McKee-Rodgriguez, a progressive councilmember, has been an outspoken critic of San Antonio's policies on police accountability. He recently came out against the proposed contract between the San Antonio Police Association and the city because he said not enough improvements were made.

When it comes to body camera policies, he thinks they need to be reworked.

“What I want to happen is a discussion about body camera policies with families who have been directly impacted by critical incidents involving officers, and I would really like to know what are their thoughts, what are the things that should be updated,” McKee-Rodriguez said.

He also criticized the narrations SAPD has placed over body cam footage when they do release it, and he said that when it comes to the release of body cam footage, the conditions of its release — whether directly to the public, only to the press or not at all — should be on a case-by-case basis depending on the wishes of the family.

“I think justice for families is important, closure is important, but so is peace,” McKee-Rodgriguez said. “And sometimes, releasing footage against their wishes, that would not create the peace that the families deserve.”

The Zemault family statement ended by saying, “Our only ask was to be able to see it for ourselves. We had the opportunity, thanks to the county, a year later. Now we are trying to navigate the trauma as we seek closure.”

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