Austin leaders call for clear policy on release of police footage
Austin City Council members are calling on Austin police and city management to produce a clear, transparent policy outlining how the department will release body-worn camera footage to the public by the end of March.
The directive came Thursday as council members approved a 10-year, $48 million contract with Axon Enterprises Inc., which makes both Taser stun guns and the cameras Austin officers wear on their uniforms. While the council approved the contract, with all but Delia Garza voting in favor, several voiced concern that footage captured by the cameras has been kept under wraps for far too long.
The council and many community advocates had hoped such a policy would have been in place more than a year ago, when the Austin Police Department completed issuing the cameras to its entire patrol force.
Without a policy to release footage in place, some are concerned the cameras, which were supposed to be a tool for transparency, haven’t lived up to their hype.
“Back at the end of 2018, the (city) manager, along with our now Police Oversight Officer (Farah) Muscadin, put out a memo to council saying that we would have a release policy that would be progressive and would make this investment worthwhile,” Council Member Greg Casar said. “It’s been quite a while since the end of 2018.”
City Manager Spencer Cronk said his office has been working with Austin police, the Office of Police Oversight and community members to draw up the policy, and said it could be ready by the end of March.
Austin police also said they have been working with the police oversight office and hope to provide an update on the policy in the near future, but declined to comment further.
Garza floated the idea of postponing the contract’s approval until after the details of the video release policy were ironed out. However, pushing off the contract could have resulted in nearly $10 million in additional expenses to the city. The contract’s terms were worked out by Austin police last year under a 2019 pricing model. Prices were expected to increase in 2020, but Axon said it would honor last year’s pricing through Feb. 14.
“I remember when we had considerable community input into the exact same concerns that are being voiced today about wanting to have the additional transparency that these cameras provide,” Garza said. “It seems like we’re having the same conversation, and I don’t know if it’s because of (land development code) stuff that this didn’t pop up earlier than it should have, because it’s an important conversation, especially after a report about significant racial disparities happening in our Police Department.”
Local criminal justice advocates Chas Moore, Chris Harris and Emily Gerrick told the council their approval should come with concrete measures that would make footage of things like police shootings, stunnings or other use-of-force incidents available automatically and quickly.
Gerrick played body-worn camera footage of the stunning and arrest of Quentin Perkins in 2018 that recently was released to Harris through an open records request.
Perkins was stunned by former Austin police officer Robert Pfaff at the scene of a shooting at 12th and Red River streets on Feb. 16, 2018, as he sat on his knees with his hands in the air. In reports filed by Pfaff and fellow officer Donald Petraitis, the officers wrote that Perkins was on his feet and appeared as if he was going to run away before he was shocked.
But footage captured by another officer showed a completely different reality.
“This was a tasing that occurred almost two years ago, and subsequently the officers that were involved in that tasing were indicted, for among other things, assault (and) falsifying records,” Harris said.
Both officers were found not guilty on all charges filed against them by a jury late in 2018. However, the pair was fired in 2019 by Police Chief Brian Manley, who wrote in a disciplinary memo that the officers’ accounts of the incident were simply untrue, and that he had serious concerns that the men “got their stories straight” before speaking with a supervisor about what had happened.
Perkins settled a lawsuit with the city over the incident for $75,000 last year.
“It’s through this case that we see both the promise and the issues with body cams,” Harris said.
He said body camera footage was the tool that allowed Manley to conclude the officers lied in their reports and to make the decision to fire them. But the video was kept from public view for the entire investigative and judicial process.
“Because the accountability, the transparency that we were promised with body cameras has not been realized, we don’t see these videos,” Harris said.
Casar said the March deadline should provide plenty of time to put finishing touches on a release policy that should allow for automatic release of footage involving cases of public interest.
“In cases where there isn’t automatic release, (it should allow) for there to be an expeditious process for people to be able to get these videos so that when we are investing all this money to capture the video, that it actually provides transparency to the public,” he said.
By Mark Wilson