This story has been updated.
A fatal police shooting in San Antonio this week has once again raised the issue of how quickly law enforcement body camera footage should be released.
The San Antonio Police Department’s body-worn camera policy, which was adopted in December 2020, gives the department up to 60 days — with approval by the police chief — to release portions of video and audio recordings of critical incidents.
After the shooting Monday of Kevin Donel Johnson, who police say was wanted on two felony warrants, Johnson’s family and activists say it’s time to revisit and substantially shorten the SAPD’s release policy.
Johnson’s family will likely not have to wait the full 60 days. It’s SAPD policy for families to review footage earlier than it is released to the general public. Councilman Mario Bravo (D1), in whose district the shooting occurred and who met with the family, said they will likely have the opportunity to review all of the relevant videos on Monday.
Bravo is one of at least three City Council members who think the policy should change.
Ananda Tomas, founder of policy reform advocacy group ACT 4 SA, agrees.
“The Johnson family deserves to know what happened to Kevin,” Tomas said. “We are calling on Chief [William] McManus to release the body cam footage within the next 72 hours for accountability and transparency to both Kevin’s family and the community.”
Police say they were trying to execute two felony arrest warrants, one for a felon in possession of a firearm and another for assault on a peace officer, against Johnson. According to a preliminary police report, officers “attempted to contact” Johnson after seeing him exit a residence. Johnson allegedly fled, running down the bank of Alazán Creek. Three officers chased him, and the report states that they said Johnson turned and pointed a gun in their direction. The report states that a gun was recovered from the scene.
The family disputes that narrative.
His sister Jasmine Johnson said witnesses told her Johnson was riding his bike when a police SUV struck him. He got back on his bike, rode toward Alazán Creek and ditched the bike to run from police. The witnesses said they heard nine shots fired, Johnson said.
It’s unclear how many shots were fired or how many times Johnson was hit. SAPD’s preliminary report also does not mention if Johnson was struck by a police vehicle.
“Look at that face,” she said of her brother before she and others released dozens of red star- and heart-shaped balloons from the Lombrano Street bridge over Alazán Creek during an emotional vigil Tuesday near the site of the shooting. “[He] was fly, handsome, young. There’s no way at all that he was threatening.”
Jose Garcia, Johnson’s stepfather, said his son got out of jail last March and was already on parole for the two charges in the arrest warrants.
He was trying to turn his life around, Garcia said, dealing with a bipolar diagnosis. “If [the police] would have understood who he was, maybe they would have taken a different approach.”
The officers involved in the incident — Adam Rule, Gus Vallas and James Quintanilla — are on administrative duty pending an investigation.
“The SAPD Shooting Team and the Internal Affairs Unit will conduct separate but concurrent investigations,” the department said in a statement Wednesday. “Their findings will be forwarded to the Bexar County District Attorney’s office for an independent review. This is all the information we are releasing at this time.”
“I want to know what happened,” Arlene Garcia, Johnson’s mother, said at the vigil on the bridge.
SAPD’s current policy
Body or dashboard camera footage could help reconcile these two competing narratives, but the substantial delay in their release allows false information to gain a foothold and suspicions to flourish, both of which can feed mistrust of police, especially for the families of those killed.
Body camera release and other police policies have come under renewed scrutiny in recent years, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men at the hands of police. The Texas Legislature last year passed the Botham Jean Act, which requires officers to keep their cameras on for the duration of an encounter.
But cameras strapped to chests and vehicles have their fair share of limitations, as do the ways police departments edit and release the footage.
In September 2020, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for a “complete review” of the police department’s body-worn camera policies after a police officer shot and killed Darrell Zemault Sr., a 55-year-old Black man, as he was being arrested on a pair of warrants.
Before December 2020, there was no specific local policy regarding the release of body camera footage.
SAPD’s current body-worn camera policy states that it will release video and audio within 60 days of a critical incident, which it classifies as serious bodily injury or death at the hand of a law enforcement officer.
The policy states that the chief may delay the release beyond 60 days; if he does, his reason is to be posted on the department’s website.
McManus has said he would always allow the family of victims to view the raw footage, but the police department must redact certain information by law before it releases the footage to the public.
The police department does more than simply redact certain information, however. The department redacts and edits the audio — often 911 calls — and selects portions of video from body cams and dash cams to combine into a single video that is narrated by SAPD staff. These edited videos can be found on the department’s YouTube channel. Other large city departments, including Dallas, produce similar content.
“We had to draw a line somewhere,” McManus said in 2020 when the new 60-day policy was put in place. “And it takes staffing, resources — there’s a lot of work putting those videos together. It’s not just taking the body cam footage and putting it out there.”
Time for a policy review?
State law prohibits the public release of body camera footage worn by police officers until an investigation is completed, but there is an exemption if the chief determines that releasing a video “serves a law enforcement purpose.”
It’s unclear whether cities and counties with shorter footage release times are using that exemption or if they are simply completing their investigations quickly.
Like Bexar County, the Austin Police Department’s policy is to release critical incident recordings within 10 days. Houston’s policy is 30 days. Dallas generally releases video 72 hours after a critical incident.
Bravo said he would like to see the 60-day policy reduced. He’s been looking into proposing such a change since he learned the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office adopted its 10-day policy.
“As soon as I read that, I told my staff I want to do that here,” Bravo told the San Antonio Report. “We want people to trust their government. We want people to trust their police force. … The more we wait in releasing these videos, the more false information can be spread.”
Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2), who made police reform a key part of his campaign platform, said if Dallas can handle a 72-hour policy, San Antonio can, too.
“I’m concerned that [police] said … the suspect pulled out a weapon — but body cam footage hasn’t been released,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We don’t know if that’s actually true. … Seventy-two hours seems appropriate — or reasonable, at least.”
Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said she also is supportive of a discussion around shortening footage release time, “and we are fortunate in that there is a local example from the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.”
Castillo emphasized the human toll of the shooting. It’s critical, she said, that “we acknowledge that Kevin Johnson’s family is in mourning right now. Their brother, their son is no longer with them.”
Nirenberg said the city, including the police department, should continually review its policies but should be wary of changes that are more symbolic than substantive.
He said other cities with shorter time frames have sometimes failed to meet their own standards. “We don’t want to be put in that situation. That sets false expectations and creates more problems.”
Dallas Police Department often does release critical incident videos within 72 hours. Just this week, the department released video from a police shooting that occurred Saturday three days later, per its policy. It also did so in a June 2021 case, where a man wanted on a murder charge shot at officers.
In a September 2021 case, where an officer fired at a suspect, it appears the video was released six days later. Dallas police officials did not respond to a request for comment on the delay.
There are a number of reasons to delay the release of video, McManus has said.
“Those reasons could [be to] protect the safety of individuals involved, to protect the integrity of an active investigation … to provide confidence to protect confidential sources and to protect the constitutional rights of the accused,” he told City Council when the 60-day policy was implemented.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said that releasing video could make it difficult to find impartial jurors for grand juries and trials.
“If the potential jurors say, ‘I can’t be fair with this case, because I’ve seen that video,’ we’re going have problems,” he told reporters and activists during a protest regarding Damian Lamar Daniels, a Black Army veteran who was killed by Bexar County deputies during a mental health crisis.
One critical incident case, in which a man was shot and killed by police, it took 61 days for SAPD to post on its YouTube account, but the remaining seven landed at 60 days or less. For example:
- 56 days after a man opened fire at the airport, ultimately killing himself on April 15 last year.
- 57 days after police shot and killed a man who ran toward police with a knife on June 3.
- 60 days after man was killed by police on July 5.
While SAPD’s policy allows up to 60 days, it doesn’t have to take that long, Nirenberg noted. “We’ll have more discussion about the 60-day [policy] and whether or not that’s appropriate,” he said Wednesday. “But again, our goal is to release and to provide as much disclosure as quickly as reasonably possible and also to set a standard that we meet or exceed.”
Speaking at the vigil Tuesday night, Pastor Vincent Robinson of the Harper’s Chapel Baptist Church, located a couple of blocks away from the shooting, was focused not on police policy, but what he called the unnecessary tragedy of Johnson’s death.
“It’s something that shouldn’t have happened,” Robinson said. “Right now our focus ain’t about us, it’s about the family. It’s about getting justice and finding out the facts.”