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More than a year after Bexar County deputy sheriffs shot and killed local resident Damian Daniels during a mental health call, a visibly frustrated Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff asked Sheriff Javier Salazar why body camera footage from the event had not yet been publicly released.

“Why can we not release it? What’s so hard about that, releasing it to the public?” Wolff asked in a meeting Tuesday.

Salazar deflected the question, saying, “I don’t know anything about that.” 

Daniels’ death served as a touchpoint for Bexar County commissioners Tuesday as they unanimously approved a new policy requiring county law enforcement offices — including the sheriff’s office and the four precincts’ constables — to release body camera footage within 10 days of a “critical incident.” 

Critical incidents are defined as events when someone suffers serious bodily injury or death at the hand of a law enforcement officer or while in the county’s custody. If a law enforcement agency head determines releasing video of an encounter with an officer serves “a law enforcement purpose,” that would also fall under the definition.

If an agency wants to delay release of footage beyond that time, it would need to ask the district attorney, according to the newly adopted policy. 

Before, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office processed requests for body camera footage on a “more case by case” basis, Salazar told reporters on Monday.

Commissioners originally looked at setting a 60-day timeline for releasing body camera footage, matching the San Antonio Police Department’s policy. Salazar sent a letter to commissioners on Monday recommending that that timeframe be shrunk to 30 days. And on Tuesday, Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) proposed making that timeline 10 days.

Salazar seemed perturbed by the new proposal.

“You were asking for 60 yesterday and we surpassed that,” he said. “It seems the target was moved when I surpassed that expectation.” 

Salazar said he wasn’t sure whether his office could successfully comply with that timeline.

“I hate to overpromise,” he said.

While all five members of the Commissioners Court voted to approve the new body camera policy, Commissioners Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) and Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2) raised concerns that the court was rushing into a decision.

Rodriguez said he thought Tuesday’s discussion was supposed to begin the conversation about body-worn camera footage release and asked his colleagues to consider tabling the issue until January after speaking with advocates and the district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices.

“I don’t think that is the right way to make policy,” he said. “These are critical issues and I know there has to be some sense of urgency here. But the reality is they represent … the start of a conversation.”

Though Rodriguez did not have enough support to delay the issue, Clay-Flores did succeed in persuading her fellow commissioners to dedicate two staff members to preparing body camera footage for release in the sheriff’s office. Right now, any video footage with license plates or footage of minors needs to be blurred before being released.

Clay-Flores emphasized that she supports having a body camera policy in place and would like to consider a release deadline even shorter than 10 days.

“However, when you go from having not really good policy to 10 days without having the financial support for the technology and the staff, then that’s an ingredient for failure,” she said. “So we need to make sure that if we’re saying we’re going to do this in 10 days, then we need to make sure that that’s supported in terms of the staff.”

Commissioners also added a caveat Tuesday that any future body camera investment would only be made if the sheriff’s office adopts and follows the 10-day release policy. Salazar held a news conference on Monday telling reporters that he had hoped to ask commissioners for upgraded body cameras and Tasers from Axon, the Scottsdale, Arizona company that currently supplies both of those items for his department. That request of $9 million was not on the Tuesday agenda. 

“I’m in favor of transparency and being on the cutting edge, but we need cutting edge technology,” Salazar said to reporters on Tuesday.

DeBerry, who has frequently butted heads with Salazar over his department’s expenses, chastised him for requesting more body camera funding without having a written body camera release policy. She said she would be happy to revisit paying for new body camera equipment in the future if the policy is followed.

“If we have body cameras already in place and we’re not turning over videos, what incentive would there be for us to continue to fund body cameras?” she asked. “It just was absurd to me. And the absurdity is over.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.