The San Antonio Police Department's current body camera policy gives them up to 60 days to release portions of the video and audio recordings from critical incidents.
The San Antonio Police Department's current body camera policy gives the force up to 60 days to publicly release portions of the video and audio recordings from critical incidents. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Police Department currently has no specific local policy regarding the release of body camera footage but will implement one starting Monday.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus briefed members of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee Tuesday on the new body-worn camera policy concerning footage that captures “critical incidents,” which include shootings or use of force by officers that result in serious injury or death. 

“In the past and now we have always followed state law, which is found in the Occupations Code, and that prohibits release while there is an administrative investigation or a criminal investigation,” McManus said. “And each time there’s an officer-involved shooting, one of those types of investigations takes place.

“I have always had the authority to release body-worn camera video,” McManus said, referring to an exception that allows for public release if it “furthers a law enforcement purpose.”

“So this simply establishes that policy and how it will govern the process,” he said.

Starting Monday, body-worn camera footage from critical incidents will be made available within 60 days, except in the case of domestic violence or juvenile suspects. Those recordings will be posted to the SAPD website and stay there for 12 months. The policy does not require City Council approval.

McManus can also decide against releasing body cam footage but he must provide a reason, he 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,” McManus said.

Policing has come under more scrutiny this year, sparked by the death of George Floyd in May and followed by activists’ highlighting the deaths of other Black men at the hands of local law enforcement officers in recent years. In September, a police officer shot and killed Darrell Zemault Sr., a 55-year-old Black man who lived on the West Side, prompting Mayor Ron Nirenberg to call for a review of San Antonio’s body camera footage policies.

The policy, spurred by the mayor’s appeal applies only to critical incidents, McManus reiterated, and only to incidents starting on Monday, a detail that Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, questioned.

“I’d like to continue those discussions and see how we can be making it at least somewhat retroactive,” she said.

The policy also doesn’t make way for the police department to release raw footage to the public, something that residents who spoke during the meeting pushed against. McManus said he would always allow the family of victims in critical incidents to view the raw footage, but the police department had to do things such as redact certain information by law if releasing the footage to the general public.

“We had to draw a line somewhere,” McManus said. “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.”

SAPD looked at other cities’ body camera policies and found that Austin was the most similar and required footage to be released in 60 days, McManus said. Dallas releases footage within 72 hours, Phoenix releases footage after 45 to 60 days, and Sacramento, California, withholds footage only in the instance of a criminal investigation. 

Members of the public criticized the new policy as toothless. Celeste Brown, who called Zemault her “second father,” asked that the policy apply to cases that occurred earlier in 2020, including in the death of Zemault.

Community member Sophia Lopez called the policy “a meaningless gesture.”

“A policy that tells people that they need to wait 60 days for a decision on whether or not SAPD will be transparent is beyond insulting,” Lopez said. “Why even bother having body cameras if you don’t stand to make the footage they record available?”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.