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San Antonio Police Killed Darrell Zemault Sr. 3 Months Ago. Where’s The Body Cam Footage?

Courtesy of Celeste Brown

Darrell Zemault Sr. woke up on Sept. 15 with plans to refurbish a set of cabinets — a typical activity for the lifelong West Side resident, according to Celeste Brown. She described him as a “second father” who was happy to help anyone, from family to strangers.

“He was the most handy man in the world,” she said. “He would help me with my car all of the time.”

Before he could finish the project, a San Antonio police officer shot him in the back.

The San Antonio Police Department claimed that Zemault Sr. grabbed an officer’s gun during an attempted arrest for outstanding warrants. But the department continues to withhold body camera footage of the encounter, and a spokesperson did not answer questions from Texas Public Radio about the incident.

Two videos obtained by TPR show the immediate aftermath of the shooting. In the initial 56-second video, at least five officers stand around Zemault Sr. as he lies motionless next to the cabinets. In a subsequent 2-minute and 49-second video, an officer appears to apply pressure to the gunshot wound.

One officer yells, "Everybody's good, right?" Another officer answers, "Yeah, we're all good."

Other people in the area yell, "Call the ambulance. We need an ambulance."

SAPD said the shooting occurred at 1:45 p.m. According to the files' metadata, the first video was recorded seconds before 1:46, and the second video was recorded three minutes later.

The department declined to comment on the videos. It's not unusual for officers to not immediately render first aid in the aftermath of shootings.

Brown said she wasn't surprised by the videos, but she found the officers' initial response "infuriating."

"We're talking about a matter of life and death, right?" she said. "If pressure was applied to the wound, he could still be here."

Darrell Zemault Sr. was pronounced dead at a local hospital later that day. He was 55 years old. He was a father, a grandfather, an excellent cook with an eclectic palate, and "the love of the West Side," according to Brown.

She said the family learned of the death through news media reports. She recalled arriving back at the home after Zemault Sr. was pronounced dead. The family found blood and first aid materials next to the unfinished cabinets and an officer inside the home.

“We asked to see the warrant,” she said. “And the officer said what he would focus on, if he were us, were making funeral arrangements and that they would put the warrant on the table when they were done.”

Family and friends grieved the death of a beloved community figure. For many, the killing brought back memories of other Black men slain at the hands of local law enforcement: Charles “Chop” Roundtree, Marquise Jones, Antronie Scott and Damian Daniels.

Tuesday marks three months since the killing. SAPD has completed its internal investigation. The Bexar County District Attorney’s office received the police department’s findings, and its newly formed Civil Rights Division will review the case. The DA’s office declined to comment for this story.

During a Tuesday meeting of the city's public safety committee, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales described the function of the new division, which is designed to examine "officer-involved shootings" and "in-custody deaths."

"We'll be reviewing these kinds of cases to determine whether or not the officers did anything wrong — whether or not they were in fear of their life, for example." he said. "If they were in fear of their life, then they're going to have a justification. They're going to have a defense under the law. And so that's what this division is going to be doing."

The killing of Darrell Zemault Sr. kicked off a familiar cycle: a lack of transparency from law enforcement, muddied media coverage and promises of incremental reform.

SAPD Refuses To Answer Questions, Commit To Releasing Body Cam Footage

Within a day of the shooting, SAPD’s story had changed.

The department initially claimed that Zemault Sr. hit one of the officers with a can of wood stain, causing a visible welt on the officer’s face.

The next day, the department sent out a revised statement to local news media. It said, in part, “After giving his statement, the officer wasn’t sure exactly how he was injured, and he wasn’t sure if the actor intentionally hit him with the can or if the contact was incidental to the arrest. That particular interaction wasn’t captured on any body worn camera.”

More importantly: the revised statement again alleged that Zemault Sr. grabbed an officer’s gun, drew it out of the holster and attempted to point it at officers before he was shot in the back.

The department implied — but did not directly state — that this version of events was based on body cam footage. The statement read, “The summary provided above was obtained after the viewing of the body worn camera videos.”

TPR sent four written questions to SAPD. One asked, “yes or no, is each and every part of this statement documented and confirmed by the body cam footage?”

A department spokesperson did not answer three of the four questions, responding only to an inquiry about the status of the investigation. They wrote, “This case has been forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office for review.”

TPR pointed out that only one of the four questions had been answered, and again asked, “Yes or no, is each and every part of this statement documented and confirmed by the body cam footage?”

The spokesperson wrote, “The case is still open. As mentioned, the case has been forwarded to the DA’s office for review. Any information to include the below quote from the revised statement is all we are releasing at this time.”

TPR’s primary question could easily be answered by public release of the body cam footage. Open record requests for the footage and police reports have not been fulfilled by the City of San Antonio, which continues to withhold the requested records while it seeks an opinion from the Texas Attorney General.

Do Body Cams Work? ‘The Promise Hasn’t Been Fulfilled’

Body-worn cameras are often heralded as effective tools for police reform. Body cams supposedly decrease brutality, increase accountability and allow for transparency. But the ostensible efficacy of this reform rests on a key assumption — that the public is actually able to access footage.

Chris Harris is the director of the Criminal Justice Project with left-leaning group Texas Appleseed, a non-profit that “advocates for social and economic justice.”

According to Harris — and activists around the country — body cams are now frequently used for surveillance, a far cry from the tool of accountability that was initially promised.

“One of the big reasons that the promise hasn’t been fulfilled is that the public doesn't really get access to the footage on any regular basis,” he said. “And on this point: state law does play a larger role. The state body cam statutes really leave all the decisions up to local police chiefs.”

Texas state law allows departments to create their own procedures. The law requires police chiefs to craft “guidelines for public access, through open records requests, to recordings that are public information,” while spelling out specific protections for officers, like “entitling an officer to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer are required to make a statement about the incident.”

Harris said the open-ended nature of the state law allows police departments to withhold footage.

“(The law) does specify that the release of footage publicly has to serve what's deemed ‘a law enforcement purpose,’” he said. “So local actors can deem public transparency, public trust as fulfilling the ‘law enforcement purpose’ to justify regular release of the footage. But thus far, we've only seen that really stated in policy in a couple of places.”

The Dallas Police Department releases body cam footage from police shootings within 72 hours — a relatively new policy. It’s one of the only major departments in Texas with such a clear-cut rule. But even under that policy, footage can be withheld by the chief.

Kristian Hernandez is a member of the City of Dallas’ Community Police Oversight Board. She also sits on the Democratic Socialists of America national political committee.

Hernandez said she and other organizers are skeptical of body cameras, but the policy change was a small step in the right direction.

“There's a lot of us who don't actually see body cams as an effective tool against the police. Ultimately, it's still a tool of surveillance, and more often used to hurt civilians than it is to actually help them,” she said. “But these body cams already existed within the force. So if they were already going to exist, then the push was: ‘Well, at least let's make sure that they actually get used.’”

Some activists push back against widespread adoption of body cams because they require more funding for police departments. Proponents of “defunding the police” argue money allocated for body cams would be better spent addressing the root causes of crime — poverty and lack of access to housing.

But in many cities, body cameras have already been adopted. And in San Antonio, the push to “defund the police” appears politically untenable. As Mayor Ron Nirenberg has said, “(Defunding the police) has never been on the table.”

Instead, the current conversation is focused on incremental reforms — like those outlined by the Eight Can’t Wait platform — as well as rethinking the body camera policy.

The San Antonio Police Department announced a new footage release policy on Friday.

The policy — set to go into effect on Dec. 21 — lays out a timeline for potential releases of body camera footage. Whenever an SAPD officer shoots someone or uses force “that results in death or serious bodily injury,” the chief will make a public decision on whether or not to release footage within 60 days. The change comes weeks after the mayor’s office called for a review of the current policy, which does not include any timeline for decisions on footage releases.

SAPD’s statement said, “The revised policy will be applicable to future critical incidents.” The department confirmed to TPR that the shooting of Zemault Sr. will not fall under the new policy.

In a written statement, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg told TPR, “I asked for the body camera policy review because I believe it is in the community’s interest to make the footage public whenever it is reasonable. The chief will inform the public in writing within 60 days of an incident if a video will not be released. The public should know the protocol so they can have reasonable expectations about the release of footage, and the procedures should lean toward transparency. This policy does that.”

According to SAPD policy, the body cam footage for any incident that results in an internal investigation will “have all viewing privileges blocked out with the exception of personnel assigned to the Professional Standards/Internal Affairs Unit, the Shooting Team, or as assigned by the Chief of Police.”

But even in the absence of an internal investigation, “viewing privileges” belong only to certain department personnel. The taxpayer-funded department owns all body cam footage, and has complete autonomy over decisions to publicly release footage, even with the new 60-day policy.

Police killed 36-year-old Antronie Scott in 2016 after he reached for his cellphone, but the officer didn’t wear a body cam, and the dashboard camera in his car was supposedly pointed away. The audio recording of the shooting was never released.

In October 2018, an SAPD officer shot and killed 18-year-old Charles “Chop” Roundtree. The officer entered a home without identifying himself as law enforcement and was aiming at someone else reacting to the unexpected intrusion. KENS 5 published part of the body cam footage in May 2019.

According to KENS 5, the department refused to release the footage, “However, a source wishing to remain anonymous sent a copy of the officer's body camera video with a note that said, ‘You should see this.’”

One recent, notable exception to SAPD’s usual refusal to release footage: the non-fatal, wrongful arrest of Mathias Ometu. SAPD released footage after a public outcry over cellphone video and news reports of the incident.

In the video, just as police started to force Ometu into the back of a cop car, the camera fell lens-first to the ground. No images of the most violent moments were captured in the footage SAPD chose to publish.

Police Narratives Make Local Headlines

After the killing of Darrell Zemault Sr., San Antonio residents who tuned into the local evening news saw a familiar scene: SAPD chief William McManus standing in front of cameras and microphones, giving a full, play-by-play accounting of the “officer-involved shooting.” Some stations aired a few soundbites from family or community members, but McManus — an “official source” — was given the predominant platform.

The digital arms of several local news stations posted stories with entire paragraphs attributed to SAPD, often without verifying or talking to other sources. Some stories allowed family and community members to act as critical skeptics of the department’s version of events, but others used McManus as the only source.

Chris Harris with Texas Appleseed said the news media should play a more skeptical role when covering police violence.

“I think that corroboration should be required in order to repeat — particularly as a version of fact — the police's version of events,” he said.

Several stories from multiple outlets detailed Zemault Sr.’s alleged criminal history. While some relied on police documents likely obtained through open records requests, the stories largely failed to note that the body cam footage and police report directly related to the Sept. 15 killing have been withheld by the city.

“Mining someone's past for a list of criminal behavior is a very explicit attempt on the part of a police union to justify police violence. I don't think it really makes sense, especially when we're talking about past behaviors,” Harris said. “But it is something that unfortunately has proven an effective tactic in lessening the amount of empathy that people feel for the victims of police violence, and I think it's something that we all need to be better attuned to and educated about.”

Celeste Brown said the coverage was painful, but unsurprising.

“I think it's something we see across media, across the country, right? There's always a reason. If they find weed in their system, or Breonna Taylor's boyfriend had a gun legally, right? Things like that. And so I think — I hate to say that we were prepared for it, but we were,” she said.

“You see people in the comments, and they're like, ‘Wow, he was a career criminal, he deserved to die…’ Any attempts that can be made to criminalize Black people that are murdered by police does happen. But I stand fully behind the fact that a warrant is not a death sentence — should not be a death sentence.”

Will Anything Change?

The San Antonio Police Officers Association is one of the most powerful police unions in the country, and its relationship with Chief William McManus is perpetually fraught. In a June interview with TPR, SAPOA president Mike Helle said McManus “wants to be a tyrant." The comment came after McManus called for changes to the current disciplinary process.

Helle and his union have hammered out one of the most officer-friendly collective bargaining agreements in the country, resulting in more than half of terminated officers getting their jobs back. State law is also officer-friendly. It allows for the arbitration process and — in this case and others — the inability of the public to view documentary evidence of their own police department’s violence. Local elected officials and city managers can change some policies, like certain parts of the disciplinary process, and they can put political pressure on police chiefs. But police department heads hold most of the power when it comes to decisions about body cam footage.

Despite confusion surrounding SAPD’s new 60-day release policy, it doesn’t actually guarantee the release of video or audio. It only guarantees a public decision by the police chief within 60 days.

But even if body cam footage does capture wrongdoing — even if the footage is released and the officer is fired — the mandatory arbitration process remains officer-friendly. Even with public outrage and a termination based on concrete evidence, officers may well be un-fired through the arbitration process.

A new round of SAPD contract negotiations are coming up in 2021. At a San Antonio public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, deputy city manager María Villagómez said one of the city's top priorities will be to change SAPD's disciplinary process.

Will the arbitration process actually change?

“Well, we don't know,” Mayor Nirenberg told TPR. “That's obviously a conversation that's happening right now with our collective bargaining process, as we prepare for it. It's also a conversation that's happening in the state because chapter 143 — which authorizes the arbitration process and disciplinary actions — is made possible through state legislation. But I would underscore... we can have all the best policies in the world, but if we don't have the proper structures of governance in place — particularly as it relates to providing the chief the authority to weed out officers who are found of misconduct — then it does no good.”

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony