© Reuters. Austin Police Department Headquarters in Austin, Texas, USA, June 18, 2021. Picture taken June 18, 2021. REUTERS / Mikala Compton
By Alexandra Ulmer and Julia Harte
AUSTIN, Texas – Advocates for police reform in Austin, Texas, applauded a year ago when the city agreed to release body camera videos of officers within 60 days of incidents of force-causing injuries. serious.
But since then, only one body camera video was released in time, in a non-fatal police shooting. Images of three fatal police shootings were made public after the deadline. In at least 10 incidents of use of force during the Black Lives Matter protests last year, the department did not release any video.
Across the United States, where a complex tangle of laws hinders public access to body camera images, activists have urged law enforcement to release videos to increase transparency and accountability in policing.
The effort gained greater urgency after high-profile cases of officers using force against people of color raised concerns about racial bias, including the police murder of George Floyd. But the enthusiasm for body cameras, which about 80% of the large US police forces have been tested, as their use has not guaranteed public access to the images.
That has been the case in Austin, the liberal capital of conservative Texas. An examination of how the city police department has implemented the promise of greater transparency shows the limitations of body cameras as a solution to excessive use of force and unfair policing.
“It makes me question the entire body camera building as an accountability or oversight tool,” said Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization.
Two Austin police shootings just one day apart highlight the uneven success of the body camera video release policy.
On January 4, Dylan Polinski, who was 23 at the time, was shot in the leg by police after he barricaded himself in a hotel room with a hostage. Survived.
The next day, Alex Gonzales, 27, was shot by an off-duty officer after an alleged “road rage” incident and then shot again by a duty officer called in as backup. Gonzales, who was in a car with his girlfriend and baby, died.
The body camera images in Polinski’s case were released before the deadline. Gonzales’ family, who believe he was wrongfully killed and plan to sue the two officers and the city, hoped the video of their shooting was, too.
“We were counting the days,” said his sister Angel Gonzales, 21, in the backyard of their home outside Austin on a sweltering June afternoon. “And they kept delaying it at the last minute.”
During the family’s wait, police issued two statements explaining the robberies, citing weather-related closures and investigation needs. His mother, Liz Gonzales, said she resented preparing for the video of her son’s death before each deadline, only to face delays.
The video was finally released in April, 113 days after the shooting. Prosecutors say they hope to present the case to a grand jury in early winter.
Joseph Chacon, Austin’s acting police chief, said there have been legitimate reasons for the delays in releasing the video, including insufficient resources for the time-consuming process of preparing the images for public release.
However, the policy enacted under his predecessor should be reviewed to achieve his goal of greater transparency, said Chacón, who is seeking to be hired as the next boss.
“We published a policy and said, ‘We’ll do it in 60 days.’ They have an expectation and when we don’t meet that expectation, that erodes that confidence, “Chacón said in an interview.
The proliferation of police body cameras across the country reflects the growing view that citizens have the right to examine the performance of officers in the field, although the police largely view cameras as tools for gathering evidence.
Additionally, some activists believe officers are less likely to discriminate or use excessive force when searched. Research to confirm this has produced mixed results.
But experts agree that if a video is recorded, the slow or inconsistent release of the footage fuels public mistrust and reinforces the perception that the police want to hide the misconduct of officers.
Chacón said the department can only prepare images of one case at a time and had to prioritize the Polinski shooting because it happened first. You want to reduce processing time by stopping video editing and posting nearly raw images instead.
Rebecca Webber, a civil rights attorney who has criticized the Austin Police Department’s delays, welcomed Chacón’s proposal.
“It is the obvious solution. I am 100% in favor,” he said.
Other Texas cities have adopted shorter image release deadlines for critical incidents. Dallas says it does it in 72 hours, while Houston takes up to 30 days.
Police in the Brooklyn Center suburb of Minneapolis were praised in April for posting body camera footage of the officer who shot Daunte Wright, a black man, to death in 24 hours.
But elsewhere, body camera video was released years after an event, or never. In the April 2019 murder of Kawaski Trawick by NYPD, the Bronx district attorney released the images 18 months later.
When protesters were injured during Austin’s racial justice protests last year, the city’s police department said it would not release videos until the district attorney decided whether to present the cases to a grand jury.
Following questions from Reuters about the delay, the district attorney’s office, where a new chief, José Garza, was elected in November, said it no longer opposed the release of images. One of Garza’s campaign promises was to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
Sam Kirsch, 27, is eager to see the video. He believes that a police projectile caused severe damage to his left eye during a May 2020 protest, and has sued both the police and the city.
The district attorney’s office is investigating. In court filings, the officer said he was performing within the scope of his duty.
“If I could see the images of me and hear what might have been said, I could know if I was attacked,” Kirsch said. “If I knew for sure that I was not an intentional target, I might feel a little more secure living in Austin.”