It’s been more than a year since a Bexar County deputy shot and killed Damian Lamar Daniels, a Black Army veteran who was experiencing a mental health crisis. Daniels’ family and police reform activists gathered outside Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales’ office on Tuesday to demand that the facts of the case be heard by a grand jury.

Gonzales, who was not expected to attend the press conference, stepped up to the microphone to announce his office intends to take this case to a grand jury by the end of this month.

“We’ve had this case about six months now and we’re right on schedule, we intend to take this case to the grand jury by the end of the month,” he said, reiterating his pledge to do so one year ago.

Gonzales, who took office in January of 2019, filed for re-election just an hour before the press conference.

Annette Watkins, Daniels’ mother, said the sooner the case goes before a grand jury, the better, “because it’s long overdue.”

The sheriff’s office reported multiple mental health calls regarding Daniels starting Aug. 24, 2020. During the second of two welfare checks by deputies on Aug. 25, Deputy John Rodriguez shot the combat veteran after he and his partner struggled to take Daniels’ gun and detain him for mental health treatment.

“[Daniels] wasn’t suicidal,” Watkins said. “So when he asked for help, that meant he needed help — and he didn’t need police officers to come and criminalize him and kill him.”

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar’s office did not respond to a request for comment this week, but he has previously said the deputies “did a good job of handling the call.” 

At the time, Salazar defended the decision to send regular law enforcement officers to the scene rather than mental health unit deputies, who have specialized response training.

“Quite frankly, I don’t know that our mental health deputies would have done anything different than what the patrol deputies did,” Salazar said.

This summer, the Daniels family called for Salazar to resign for making “material misrepresentations” by releasing still images taken from body camera footage in the days after the shooting.

The still images paint a picture of an aggressive, unstable man, said Simone Coleman, a close friend of Daniels.

“Damien was the most forgiving and kind person you’ve ever met,” she said. “Stop depicting him as a veteran who just couldn’t make it. I’m a veteran with PTSD. And when I call for help, I expect to be helped. I don’t want my children worried that somebody is going to come to my house and shoot in front of them.”

Damien’s brother Brendan Daniels, also a military veteran, said veterans across the U.S. have been fighting an “invisible war” with mental health issues.

“Mental health has to be fought with compassion, it has to be fought with someone who understands how to treat another human being,” he said. “We have people that go out and chase lions and tigers and bears — and they use tranquilizers — and they bring them in peacefully. So why can’t we bring our own veterans [to get] that help that they need peacefully as well?”

Brendan Daniels recalls memories with his brother, Damian Daniels, a veteran who was slain during a mental health crisis last year.
Brendan Daniels recalls memories with his brother, Damian Daniels, a veteran who was slain during a mental health crisis last year. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

While the family has seen the full, unedited recording, neither the district attorney nor the sheriff has released it to the public.

Gonzales cited concern over influencing potential jurors.

“The potential jurors [could] say, ‘I can’t be fair with this case, because I’ve seen that video,’ we’re gonna have problems,” he said. “We have to balance that with the needs of the family.”

Lee Merritt, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer who is representing the Daniels family, said he understands that releasing the video could create some challenges, but that does not outweigh the need for transparency.

In this case, the jury pool has already been “tainted by a story that is demonstratively false” through the sheriff department’s still images, Merritt said.

Earlier Tuesday, Bexar County Commissioner’s Court approved a new policy requiring county law enforcement offices to release body camera footage within 10 days of a “critical incident,” such as a deputy shooting someone.

The sheriff, who had proposed a 30-day policy, has the ability to apply the policy retroactively. Salazar did not answer Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff when he asked why he has not released the footage from Daniels’ death.

Taking cops out of the equation

Daniels’ death also prompted Bexar County, the county’s Center for Health Care Services, Acadian Ambulance Service and Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC) to quickly develop a team to respond to low-level mental health calls. That team included a specially-trained deputy, a paramedic, a mental health specialist and peer support professional.

Known as the Specialized Multidisciplinary Alternate Response Team (SMART), the $1.5 million county-funded program launched in October last year and has since expanded to two teams.

The City of San Antonio is planning to launch a similar team as part of a pilot project next spring.

The Daniels family and activists called on the city to create another mental health response unit that does not include law enforcement. That team could be funded through the roughly $230 million in coronavirus relief funds the city must spend by 2026, said Ananda Tomas, director of Act 4 SA, which advocates for police reform.

“One in four people killed by police have a mental illness,” Tomas said, citing national data tracked by the Washington Post. “There is literally nothing that the city or county can lose by implementing such a program [without law enforcement], but there’s so much to gain.”

The idea of creating a unit that does not include law enforcement was discussed during a November City Council committee meeting. It received support from at least one council member, but gave City officials pause.

Not having a police officer on the team presents safety concerns for the other team members, Deputy City Manager María Villagómez said at the time.

“Our professional recommendation to the council is to have a law enforcement presence as we do this pilot program,” Villagómez said. “We’re not opposed to — once we have the data to evaluate — a different model.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org