Sheriff Javier Salazar said his office will soon be able to implement a 10-day policy to release certain body camera footage to the public after Bexar County Commissioners on Tuesday approved a $3 million expansion and extension of the department’s existing contract.
Along with the two-year contract extension for technology company Axon, which now goes through 2025, the measure replaces outdated tasers and body cameras and includes virtual training for deputies and image redaction and audio dictation software upgrades.
Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) successfully added language separate from the contract that gives the sheriff’s office 60 days to demonstrate that it can process body camera footage of critical events within 10 days. Events are classified as critical when someone suffers serious bodily injury or death at the hand of a law enforcement officer or while in the county’s custody.
The 10-day policy, approved by the Commissioners Court in December, allows for “more transparency with the community,” Clay-Flores said, stressing that the family of those harmed should have “ample time” to watch the footage before it is released to the public.
The policy emerged after it took more than a year for the sheriff’s office to release body cam video from the Bexar County deputies involved in the fatal shooting of Damian Daniels, a Black Army veteran, during a mental health call.
Salazar previously suggested it may take as long as 120 days to get the staff and technology in place, but he said he was confident after the vote that he could satisfy the commissioners’ request in half that time.
“The last thing I want to do is over-promise, but now that we’re being asked to do that, I say, OK. Well, just let me get these folks hired, let me get them trained up,” he told reporters after the vote.
The sheriff’s office will hire two people to ensure that the automated software accurately removes information from videos such as certain faces, license plates, and other information required by law.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) cast the lone vote against the measure, suggesting that the additional services in the amended contract should face a competitive process.
“I don’t have an issue with replacing our tasers,” Calvert said. “We want your officers to have equipment that [is not going to malfunction]. But I do have an issue when we bundle some of those other things and there are other products that probably cost less.”
Larry Roberson, an attorney with Bexar County, clarified that contracts deemed necessary to public safety are not required to go through a competitive bidding process.
Calvert, along with a few activists who attended the meeting, also suggested that Axon should be required to provide equipment upgrades and the sheriff’s office should have the ability to comply with the 10-day rule under the existing contract — without the $3 million extension.
“I don’t think it’s fair that the sheriff is holding the 10-day policy hostage dependent on receiving more money, and I don’t think this is a good allocation of our funds,” said Ananda Tomas, executive director of the local police reform advocacy group Act 4 SA.
“The difference between us and those agencies is they already had this technology,” Salazar said.
After the body cam contract was approved, the court moved on to approve a five-year labor agreement with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Bexar County. The agreement includes a $2,000 bonus for deputies, takes steps toward increased accountability for deputy misconduct and creates a civilian oversight board.
County reviews current, future mental health programs
Also on Tuesday, commissioners accepted a report that outlines more than $37 million in initiatives aimed at improving the local mental health system and its connections with the criminal justice system.
The report was created by the Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which was formed by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in April last year. The $37 million is intended to fund its short-term recommendations, but the report also identifies long-term goals to address the challenges that people with mental illnesses face.
Recommendations include nearly $15 million to enhance care for people who need long-term care at psychiatric facilities, $9 million to fund pre-crisis mental health services and facilities for individuals without health insurance and nearly $1 million to establish a recovery program for victimized youth in the criminal justice system.
“For too long, when we discussed mental health, we whispered,” said Probate Judge Oscar Kazen, who co-chairs the task force. “I’m proud to say that, at least in Bexar County … we plan, we strategize, we implement.”
Officials hope much of the $37 million could come from the county’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grants and other local, state and federal sources, said Mike Lozito, director of Bexar County’s Office of Criminal Justice.
The task force will continue its work to identify strategies to meet the county’s long-term goals, he said.
Last week, the City of San Antonio reserved $26 million of its ARPA funding for mental health services.
Commissioners also received an update on Bexar County’s Specialized Multidisciplinary Alternate Response Team (SMART) that launched two months after the fatal shooting of Daniels.
The team deploys a Bexar County deputy, paramedic and licensed clinician to low-risk mental health calls that do not involve violence. A peer support specialist, someone who has lived experience with mental illness, follows up with patients afterward.
None of the 934 calls that SMART responded to from October 2020 to December 2021, required use of force, said Eric Epley, executive director of Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council.
Fewer than half of calls were resolved at the scene or a patient was transported to a care facility, 84% resulted in someone receiving help from the Center for Health Care Services for the first time, Epley said. “So we’re identifying new people that definitely need that level of service.”
The SMART program, currently operating five days a week, will soon expand to weekends, 24 hours a day.
Had this program been in place and utilized in August 2020, Daniels may have survived his encounter with deputies, said Simone Coleman, a close friend of Daniels who considered him family.
Coleman suggested that peer support specialists play a larger role in the initial team response and in informing best practices for the program as a whole.
“If you don’t actually have [that] life experience — you haven’t gone into combat, like myself, if you’ve never been beaten, or if you’ve never lived in a homeless shelter —you can’t understand the aspects that bring about these mental situations,” she said.
Calvert called for the county to create a community advisory board to monitor the SMART program and make recommendations.
“Community folks are usually about five years ahead of elected officials in terms of understanding what’s on the ground level and what’s really happening,” he said.