Texas law often allows police to keep body camera video secret


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The Texas Body Camera Act gives police departments the discretion to withhold body camera footage.

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When Carlos High was killed by Grand Prairie police, the department refused to release video of his death for two years.

Her family wanted to see for themselves what had happened, not to rely on what the police told them or a four-sentence police report, according to her family’s attorney, Kim T. Cole of Frisco. The wait was agonizing, she said.

Texas law allows police departments to choose whether to post videos when a suspect ultimately dies or in cases where the footage will not be used as evidence. The result can be a lack of transparency and accountability when the police take someone’s life.

“When police chiefs choose which videos to show, body cameras go from being a tool of transparency to a tool of propaganda,” said Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

In an investigation into how North Texas Police Departments respond to 911 calls for mental health, the Star-Telegram made 17 requests for body camera footage.

Seven were received and seven were refused. Another request is still being processed and two more have been referred to the attorney general‘s office, which has not ruled on their release.

When cities retain body camera video

In most denials, city prosecutors have cited what is known as the “dead suspects loophole.” Departments may choose to withhold videos and other police documents (such as 911 reports and logs) in cases where a person is not charged or convicted. This effectively allows the police to withhold video or documents when a person is killed.

“It creates a strange situation where a person has died and cannot be sentenced or whose judgment is deferred, but their family members and the public do not have the right to access the information from the body camera that is coming to them. would indicate the circumstances of that person’s death. dead, ”said JT Morris, a First Amendment lawyer in Austin.

Part of the law states that anyone who requests body camera images must name at least one person who is the subject of the recording. In a case in Fort Worth, city officials said the victim was not filmed. Because the newspaper did not know the name of someone who was filmed, the request was denied.

The families of those killed also have the discretion to decide whether they want the footage to be released. In another Fort Worth case, the wife of a man who was killed wrote to Attorney General Ken Paxton, the police department and the newspaper to ask that the video not be shown.

One of the newspaper’s requests was denied because the department used a potential litigation exemption. The department has not been prosecuted, but the families have two years to file a civil rights complaint.

Morris called this a “rather shaky justification” for refusing release since the video would come out in court anyway. And there is no guarantee that a family will file a complaint.

Video of a family’s fight for the police

Cole, the lawyer who represents High’s family, said they did not obtain copies of the video until they filed a complaint against the police department.

High was killed in 2018 after someone called 911 signal that a man was slumped on his steering wheel in the parking lot in front of an Ikea store in Grand Prairie.

When the first officer arrived, High immediately told him he had a gun in his lap. The officer asked High to put his hands up, and he did.

High was scheduled to have a psychiatric appointment about an hour later that afternoon. He referred to snipers on the roof watching them.

After several minutes, the officer called for reinforcements. One of the officers quickly walked over to High’s driver’s side window, approached him a few inches from him, and looked at the gun. High looked startled by the sudden arrival of the officer. He dropped one of his hands.

The officers backed up, unsheathed their guns, and yelled at High to put up his hands. In an instant, High grabbed the gun and was fatally shot.

A four-sentence police report said: “Officers responded to a welfare check at 1000 Ikea Way. Upon meeting the officer with the subject, he showed a gun. Officers shot the suspect, retired to cover themselves, and began negotiations. SWAT was called to approach the vehicle; when they did, the subject was deceased.

That day, Steve Dye, then Grand Prairie Police Chief, told reporters High shot his gun at officers, who retaliated out of fear for their lives.

Two days later, he recanted and said there was no evidence High fired his rifle.

Her family wanted to see body camera footage so they could determine what exactly had happened, without relying on misinformation.

“I requested this video a number of times and they continued to block it,” Cole said. “They tied up his family for two years. “

Cole ultimately dropped the lawsuit after receiving the video.

“By dropping the trial, we demanded a change in their transparency policy,” she said.

Grand Prairie Police have refused to meet with the family and, according to Cole, have not changed their policies. The police department did not return a request for comment.

Changing departmental policies

Some departments in Texas have created policies that dictate when and how to post videos of deaths in custody.

Fort Worth policy states that videos must be released no later than five days after a death, but the language leaves the option for some videos to be withheld under state law.

These cases include videos that could compromise an investigation, show the use of tactics that could negatively affect future operations, or footage that would violate someone’s privacy. Other examples include videos that show minors, dead people, and those that identify the names of agents.

The city’s new police supervisor, Kim Neal, did not respond to a call or emails asking if she had reviewed the department’s body camera disclosure policy.

Arlington’s body-worn camera policy does not set specific time limits for release after a police shootout, spokesman Tim Ciesco said.

“Department heads determine this on a case-by-case basis, again, to ensure that the appropriate people have time to review it before it goes public,” Ciesco wrote in an email, specifying that despite the lack of a fixed deadline, the police leaders have always chosen to broadcast body camera images.

Typically, Ciesco said, the department posted at least some of the videos within 72 hours.

Morris, Austin’s attorney, said there must be a uniform law across the state that takes police chiefs away from decision-making and requires them to post certain videos.

Texas law states that only body camera images that could be used as evidence in criminal proceedings are subject to the law, meaning that departments can choose to withhold or disclose anything else.

The law strictly prohibits the broadcasting of footage showing the interior of a residence or containing an interaction which did not lead to an arrest or which would only be an offense.

Thus, video of a police shooting inside someone’s house would be withheld. And because a deceased person cannot be involved in criminal proceedings, chiefs can choose to withhold those videos.

Hudson, of the ACLU, argued that giving police exclusive control over the broadcast of video defeats the purpose of having body cameras and “seriously undermines confidence in police services. “.

“Videos, especially of critical incidents involving death, should be automatically made public,” he said.

An attempt to strengthen the State Transparency Law recently failed.

El Paso State Representative Joe Moody tabled a bill during the 2021 legislature this would have required departments to post videos related to critical police incidents within 60 days. The bill would also have closed the loophole that allows police to withhold videos of deceased suspects.

The bill would have provided flexibility for removing parts of videos in certain circumstances, such as images of minors or victims of certain crimes, in order to protect their privacy. The bill would have prohibited an agency from writing or editing a video that compromises the portrayal of what happened during the critical incident, including footage of the officers involved.

He died in commission.

This story was originally published November 21, 2021 at 5.15 am.

Nichole Manna is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Star-Telegram who focuses on criminal justice. Before moving to Fort Worth in July 2018, she was a reporter for newspapers in Tennessee, North Carolina, Nebraska and Kansas. She enjoys spending time with her two dogs, Opie and Oliver. You can send tips and book suggestions to [email protected] or on Twitter @NicholeManna.

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