Bexar County is putting a spotlight on police use-of-force cases after having time to reflect following the death of George Floyd, said District Attorney Joe Gonzales. He announced Friday that he plans to create a new division within his office dedicated to reviewing and investigating injuries or deaths caused by law enforcement officers.
When looking at other practices on handling similar cases around the United States, Gonzales said the recurring theme he saw was an emphasis on independent investigation.
“The argument is, ‘Well, how can you be independent and unbiased with these kinds of cases if you rely on law enforcement bringing you cases for you to review?’ … And there’s some merit to that argument,” he said at a news conference Friday.
“Because of that, we have created an independent unit that will only handle these kind of cases.”
Dubbed the Civil Rights Division, the unit within the DA’s office is pending Bexar County Commissioners Court approval. If launched, it would be dedicated only to police use-of-force cases that result in injury or death, Gonzales said. Those cases were previously assigned to the Special Crimes Division; that division will bear the new name of Public Integrity and Cyber Crimes and focus on cases of public corruption, elder fraud, and financial crimes.
A standalone unit focused on law enforcement officer use of force, wrongful death, and injury cases would allow the legal process to be expedited and hopefully give resolution to situations more quickly, Gonzales said.
“It will allow us to speed up the process in terms of reviewing these cases, preparing them for presentation to the grand jury,” he said. “It also creates this distance or independence from other cases because these are the only type cases that this unit will handle.”
One of the first cases the unit will likely handle is the death of Damian Lamar Daniels, a Black man who was killed by a Bexar County sheriff deputy responding to a mental health call in August. That case has not yet been filed with the district attorney’s office, Gonzales said. He also was not sure if the unit would handle previous cases of use of force but acknowledged that he has the ability to review cases that occurred before he started his tenure as district attorney.
“However, in my mind, the priorities are the death cases … where someone has lost their life,” Gonzales said.
Right now, the district attorney’s office has 23 pending cases where people were shot by officers, 11 of which resulted in death, said Christine Del Prado, head of the Special Crimes Division. Gonzales said he was not sure how many officer-involved shooting cases typically occur each month.
Sheriff Javier Salazar said there have been three instances of his deputies shooting people in the past year, two of which resulted in death. All three cases are being investigated by the district attorney’s office, he said. And he praised the creation of the civil rights division.
“We’re reimagining our approach to civil rights and to the use of force and the policies and everything,” he said. “We’re looking at everything top to bottom. At the sheriff’s office, we began making some changes several years back. I’ve got full faith that when all is said and done, all of the demands that are being made of law enforcement [for] change, I believe we’ll be on the right side of history.”
One of the immediate changes from the creation of the civil rights division will allow a prosecutor from the district attorney’s office to arrive at the scene of an officer-involved shooting when a situation is first reported, Salazar said.
“As soon as [Gonzales] wants us to start, we’ll start doing that,” Salazar said. “I believe it’s a good thing to have extra sets of eyes.”
On Tuesday, Gonzales will formally ask the county commissioners to approve the creation of his new division and provide about $385,000 to fund it. The division will have two prosecutors, one investigator, and one advocate. And investing in that unit now may end up saving the County money down the road, Gonzales said.
“If you think about the expense, with just one lawsuit that may end up in the millions of dollars, this may be money well spent,” he said. “But again, remember we’re trying to respond to what the community is saying about how we can do our job better.”
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff expressed his support for the proposed Civil Rights Division on Friday.
“I’ve been here 20 years this coming May, and I’ve never had a district attorney come to me and say, ‘I want to take on this responsibility,’” he said. “Because it’s a big responsibility.”