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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

A promise to release police video falls short

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A promise to release police video falls short
A promise to release police video falls short

Warning: This story contains graphic content.

Police-reform advocates cheered a promise by the city of Austin, Texas last year to quickly make public police body camera footage of serious incidents.

But a Reuters review found Austin police rarely met the deadline.

This report produced by Zachary Goelman.

Alex Gonzales was 27 years old when he was shot and killed during a traffic stop by police in Austin, Texas in January.

"It's hard every day getting up." His mother Liz told Reuters she's wracked with anger and grief since Alex's death.

"I miss him.

Mom, momma.

I miss him.

I miss him.

I miss his voice." The officer who killed Gonzales wore a police body camera, and the city of Austin had pledged to make public all video involving serious injury or death within 60 days.

But the Gonzales family would learn that the city would fall short of that promise.

"Why?

Because we're in Austin?

Because we're in Texas?

What?

What is going on with the office inside Austin?

They know 60 days, and they still… nothing." Laws covering police cameras and video releases vary widely by jurisdiction across the United States.

In Austin, police reform activists initially cheered the city's 60-day promise as a move toward transparency and accountability.

But a Reuters review found that since May of 2020 when Austin pledged to release videos within 60 days, police met that deadline only once.

In three cases where police shot and killed suspects, video was released after that deadline.

And in at least 10 use-of-force incidents during Black Lives Matter protests last year, the department did not release any video.

Some say the delays are the work of a department trying to protect itself.

Rebecca Webber is an Austin civil rights lawyer.

"As far as just releasing body cam or security or dash cam videos of shootings, in my opinion, they continue to make those decisions the same way that they always have for years and years and years, as long as I've been paying attention, that they release information that is good for their officers and they do not release information that is not good.” Webber represents Sam Kirsch, who is suing the police over an injury to his eye he claims was caused by a police-fired projectile during a Black Lives Matter protest in May last year.

"Thankfully when I was shot, I wasn't knocked out.

I stayed conscious, which is really good, but you can imagine what a projectile shot by an 40-milimeter grenade launcher will do to your face." The district attorney’s office says it is investigating the incident but no longer objects to releasing the footage.

The video is not yet public.

In court filings the officer said he acted within the scope of his duties.

While Gonzales's family waited and weeks became months, police twice put out statements explaining the hold-up.

They cited weather-related closures and investigative needs.

His mother Liz said it was upsetting to steel herself for the video of her son's death ahead of each deadline, only to be confronted with delays.

"I'd be working and then I'd just stop.

Like I'd be stuck.

Like, snap out of it.

And it's hard for me to snap out of it.

And then I'd start getting mad, and then I'd start taking it out on people and that's not me.

And that's not right." Austin's interim police chief said there have been legitimate reasons for delays in releasing video, including insufficient resources for the time-intensive process of preparing the footage for public disclosure.

But he told Reuters the policy needs to be overhauled.

He wants to reduce processing time by no longer editing videos and instead release almost-raw footage.

The Gonzales video was finally released in April, 113 days after the shooting.

It's graphic, and shows Alex Gonzales's final moments.

He exits the car as officers repeatedly shout commands at him.

He walks around to the passenger side and reaches into the vehicle.

Officer Luis Serrato repeatedly shouts "do not reach," and then fires his weapon ten times.

Liz Gonzales believes Alex was wrongfully killed, and plans to sue the city.

Ken Irvin is an attorney representing officer Serrato.

He says that releasing video could, in some cases, compromise the rights of cops facing criminal investigation.

"We're not wholesale against the release of footage.

But it cannot come at the expense of somebody's fair, due process.

If an event has been reviewed and it's not going to be presented to a grand jury, there's not going to be any criminal action on it, then it becomes much easier to if you want to release some footage, okay, because we're not harming a person's future trial rights.

That's the problem." Prosecutors say they expect to present the case to a grand jury by early winter.