HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) — Standing alongside the city’s new police chief, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer highlighted the need for police reform and increased transparency to build trust between police and the community.”We can’t just talk (about) transparency and accountability and don’t do it,” newly-appointed Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said on April 29. “The mayor has given the marching orders and I totally agree. Within 30 days, we’re releasing all officer-involved shootings where there is an injury or a death, period, moving forward in my administration.”
As our investigation reveals, it turns out that phrase “moving forward” held more importance than we knew.Four days after that announcement, city attorneys continued to use Texas law to try and keep body-worn camera footage from past officer-involved shootings secret.
Floyd, a Houston native, was killed May 25, 2020, by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. A bystander captured 9 minutes of the incident on video, which sparked outrage across the nation and eventually led to a murder and manslaughter conviction of Chauvin.
Chauvin’s own body camera video was evidence in the trial against him as were other officers.
A year later, despite the city’s promises of transparency and a new policy allowing the release of body camera footage within 30 days of a critical incident, HPD has not released any video from the 23 HPD officer-involved shootings since Floyd’s death.
Timeline:13 Investigates take a look back at the city’s promises to release body camera video from officer-involved shootings and if they’ve followed through.On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.
When 13 Investigates’ Ted Oberg pressed Turner on why video from past officer-involved shootings have not been released, the mayor maintained the policy is not retroactive and “would be moving forward.”
Sean Roberts, an attorney who represents the family of Nicolas Chavez, who died in an officer-involved shooting last April in east Houston, said based on past experience with the department, he doesn’t trust the city will release video of officer-involved shooting in a timely manner.
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“If the city was really serious about transparency, it would not be forward (looking),” Roberts said. “This would be retroactive to whenever, in any incident where there’s been a police killing or a serious injury, that we can go as far back as we need to.”
When looking at the nation’s 10 largest cities, our investigation found HPD trailing behind when it comes policies surrounding release of bodycam footage.
“We weren’t where we needed to be, that’s for sure,” Houston Councilmember Ed Pollard said.
Before Turner announced last month that video in officer-involved shootings would be released within 30 days, Houston was the only major city without a policy in place allowing the release of video.
Currently, most cities say video can be released within 45 to 60 days. Dallas’ policy, which was implemented 10 months before Houston’s, mandates the release of video within 72 hours.
“When you’re able to be transparent about the actions or involvement on a scene that involves officers, it’s necessary. We want the public to have access to see what’s going on within their communities, as it pertains to incidents involving police officers,” Pollard said. “We’ve seen that over time that it’s usually cameras more so than eyewitness testimony that actually give us the real story.”
‘Promise of transparency’
Last summer, former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo took a knee in solidarity while joining more than 60,000 people as they marched to City Hall following Floyd’s death.
Floyd’s case highlighted the importance of video as key evidence in officer-involved shootings.It took months before bodycam footage from Floyd’s death was released to the public, but in Houston, the city spent the last year vowing to release video sooner.
“When we have a use-of-force incident, we take care of business and we don’t just whitewash stuff,” Acevedo told Oberg in June as he marched with demonstrators.
The following week, Turner announced the formation of the Mayor’s Task Force on Policing Reform as a result of the Floyd killing. The task force released recommendations in September, which called for the 30-day release of bodycam video in critical incidents, including officer-involved shootings.
Nine of the 23 officer-involved shootings since Floyd’s death were deadly, nine more resulted in injuries and there were five cases where no one was injured.
Using Texas open records laws, 13 Investigates asked for copies of video from all 23 of those shootings, but HPD hasn’t released a single second of video.
City attorneys responded with a letter to the Texas Attorney General citing ongoing investigations of alleged misconduct by officers and active criminal investigations as some reasons to keep the video from the public.
“Consistent use of a body-worn camera in the field is only the first step,” according to the Mayor’s Task Force on Policing Reform recommendations, which were released last September. “Withholding BWC video footage from the public after a critical incident does not fulfill the initial promise of transparency and accountability.”
Turner said the task force recommendations only relate to future shootings, but there’s no mention of that in the 154-page report.
“We are doing exactly what the mayor’s task force on police reform asked us to do and now you asked him for something that wasn’t even a part of the 104 recommendations,” Turner told Oberg.
There has been one officer-involved shootings since Turner’s April 29 announcement. A man was shot and killed by police early in the morning on May 25. While it has not been 30 days, 13 Investigates requested video of that shooting and it too has not been released.
Pollard said he’s optimistic the city will follow through with its new policy to release video within 30 days.
“The public should always have the right to see it, no matter what,” Pollard said. “Even if the (district attorney) is doing an investigation or there’s some internal affairs investigation, within 30 days, the public should be able to see it.”
Video not released in full
The last time HPD released bodycam footage from an officer-involved shooting, it took five months to release just snippets of what happened when police shot Chavez 23 times.
Former chief Acevedo previously said there were 70 videos from the bodycams that officers were wearing on April 21, 2020, when Chavez died.
Instead of releasing the video in full, the city released a heavily edited video, which included commentary from Acevedo saying officers were “fearing” for their safety.The video showed a lengthy standoff between officers and Chavez, who 911 callers said was “throwing himself in front of cars” on the freeway and who looked like he “was having a mental breakdown.”
At one point, Acevedo said Chavez was holding a metal object, and the video shows him telling officers “shoot me.”
“They still haven’t released an unedited, unannotated tape and so what we have are annotations and narrations, essentially trying to paint the Chavez killing as something that it wasn’t,” said Roberts, who represents the Chavez family. “It was very helpful in this case, just like it is in all cases, because these police officers, when there’s a death or serious injury that occurs, don’t always tell the truth about what happened.”
Last summer, while Acevedo called for police transparency while participating in the Floyd march, HPD still continued to withhold the bodycam footage in the Chavez case, Roberts said.
When he asked for the video, Roberts said the city responded with “all sort of departmental exceptions to releasing it and because there was an eminent investigation of the police officers themselves that was used as a basis for withholding the video.”
In February, the Chavez family filed a lawsuit suing the department over a policy that allegedly led to his death.
“The policy that we’re looking into and attacking is the police department’s policy on individuals that come into contact with tasers,” Roberts said. “Mr. Chavez apparently grabbed a used cartridge Taser and this was the justification that the police used and that the police officer union has said they followed police policy and training when they shot him 23 times.”
Roberts said the city wants the case dismissed on qualified immunity, which protects officers from personal liability in some cases.
Prior to the lawsuit being filed, Roberts said he requested the bodycam footage through an open records request, using the same law 13 Investigates used when requesting the video.
“That was sat on and the response was we’re not going to turn it over because there are these exceptions,” Roberts said.
In Texas, video from bodycams must be retained for at least 90 days, but policies regarding activation and the release of footage is up to individual departments. Roberts said he hopes to eventually subpoena the video as evidence as part of the lawsuit.
More than a year after his death, a white cross with the words “Nick Chavez” written on it is surrounded by brightly colored flowers and a black and white photo of him at a makeshift memorial near the intersection where he died.
Despite HPD eventually releasing portions of bodycam video from that night, Roberts said more is needed to know exactly what happened that day. He hopes the city follows through on its promise to release video within 30 days of an officer-involved shooting.
“A picture really is worth a thousand words and a video is more like worth a million,” Roberts said. “The truth, sometimes it’s ugly, but it can help us get past this state that we’re in.”
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