Austin’s first video under new police critical incident policy won’t be released on time

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Police Department is slated to roll out its first video under the department’s new critical incident policy with the case of Mike Ramos, the man shot and killed in an incident with Austin Police on April 24.

This video, part of a new narrative format designed to add context and increase police transparency, was supposed to be released within 60 days of the incident: June 23. However, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk requested that the video release be delayed until APD can give the video the proper oversight required by this new policy.

This comes at a time when efforts in Austin and around the country are galvanizing, calling for dramatic reforms in policing and criminal justice. Nationally, protests have been catalyzed by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police. In Austin, protesters have also been echoing the name of Mike Ramos as they call for change.

Community groups like Austin Justice Coalition released statements Friday of frustration with the way Austin Police planned to release the video, saying community groups “agreed to a policy that would allow APD to provide an edited and compiled version of body camera video ONLY because the proposed policy gave Farah Muscadin, our Director of Police Oversight, a role in the process of creating that video.”

These groups said Friday they learned the video was created without Muscadin’s participation and that she was told she would be shown the video on Friday, June 19 prior to a planned release of the video Monday, June 22.

“We do not believe this video release violation around the Ramos case is an accident,” Austin Justice Coalition said in a release. “ONLY if Office of Police Oversight is granted full participation in the editing process will we believe that the outcome is likely to be fair to the family and the community.”

Officer Christopher Taylor, who fired his patrol rifle at Ramos, is being represented by attorneys Ken Ervin and Doug O’Connell. Ervin and O’Connell say that on the afternoon of June 19 they were shown this video.

“We provided feedback and suggested additional content we believed would be helpful to the general public in understanding basic police use-of-force issues and their subsequent investigation,” the two attorneys said in an email, explaining that they believe it is important to point out the aspects of this investigation which are already a protocol for any APD investigation of critical incidents.

“We agree with the city manager’s decision to delay releasing the video and would urge him to continue delaying its release until the conclusion of any legal proceedings. We will have further comment if and when the video is released,” Ervin and O’Connell said. Back in May, Taylor’s attorneys withdrew their previous motion asking for the video from this incident not to be released.

A city spokesperson confirmed to KXAN that the video would not be released Monday, clarifying that this is “an administrative delay to provide time for appropriate implementation and execution of the policy.”

An official statement from the city explained that APD has made an initial video about the officer-involved shooting that resulted in Ramos’ death as the policy required. However, the city went on to explain, Austin’s Office of Police Oversight is required to consult and provide feedback on the production of this video, which “has not happened.”

The city statement goes on to note that Ramos’ family was given a chance to view this APD video before the Office of Police Oversight was able to give feedback. The attorney for the Ramos family, Rebecca Webber, explained that Michael Ramos’ mother was shown the APD video on the morning of Friday, June 19.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has directed that this video not be released until OPO has had a chance to “fully review the video.”

Before the video can be released, the spokesperson said that the Office of Police Oversight will need to review and provide feedback on the production of the video. The City said this video won’t be publicly released until “all provisions of the policy have been satisfied.”

KXAN asked the City what it will do in the future to ensure videos are fully compliant with the stated policy.

“As with the implementation of any new policy, we are learning and we’ll make appropriate adjustments to our internal processes going forward,” the spokesperson said.

Pushing for a new policy

This new video release policy has been something Muscadin has championed and pushed for in partnership with APD and community groups. At a meeting of the Austin Public Safety Commission in early March, Muscadin explained to the commission that discussion about a new policy for videos from critical incidents first came about during the last negotiation of a contract with Austin Police Association and was reinforced by direction from Austin City Council to do so on February 6.

In that meeting, Muscadin said she’d researched policies across the country and came across a critical incident policy at the Los Angeles Police Department, which Austin’s policy is now modeled after. The LAPD policy, which started in 2018, posts videos to a YouTube channel for critical incidents like officer-involved shootings, sharing any available video as well as a synopsis of what happened.

The Los Angeles Police video which was shown before Austin Public Safety Commissioners on March 2 as they discussed how Austin Police could release similar videos.

Muscadin said she thought this policy would offer transparency about what is going on in Austin as well as education for the community on how these incidents are responded to and investigated.

At the time of that commissioners meeting, police leaders said that the policy was still in draft form, but was 90% complete.

Muscadin assured the commission that her office would be consulted when these critical incident videos are created.

“I think it’s important that we’re a participant in that, we obviously have a different lens and I think that lens is important as far as what that end-product is going to be that shows to the public,” she said.

Muscadin also described this new policy as the product of “a really good partnership” between community groups, the police department, and the OPO. At the meeting, she referenced a pilot video APD was making a pilot to test out this new policy. (A city spokesperson explained Monday that the city was working on a “very rough draft” pilot video when the coronavirus pandemic hit “and all of our resources were diverted to that effort. Once APD made the determination to produce the Ramos video we scrapped the pilot and just went all-in with this project,” the spokesperson said.)

Austin’s Director of the Office of Police Oversight, Farah Muscadin, speaks with the Public Safety Commission about a new Austin Police Critical Incident release policy. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Muscadin also told commissioners that this critical incident video release is not meant to replace records requests for the actual raw footage, but rather “to provide proactive transparency in a way that Austin hasn’t done before and I don’t think any agency in Texas has done before.”

At that March commission meeting, Assistant Austin Police Chief Troy Gay referred to this new video policy as a “truly collaborative effort” adding that the Travis County District Attorney’s office had to agree to release these videos prior to cases being completed.

Gay explained that ATXN, who does video streaming and production for the city of Austin, will put these videos for the new policy together.

The policy

APD said that this new policy was signed by Police Chief Brian Manley on May 6 and published in APD’s general orders on June 1.

APD’s orders state the intent of this policy to ensure “the public has the most accurate picture of what occurred based on the information known at the time of release.”

Video evidence the department has of the critical incident is required to be released within 60 days. The video will be made public prior to the final judgment on criminal matters and prior to the conclusion of all related administrative investigations, the policy says.

In addition to body camera footage, these videos can contain other media including 911 calls, dispatch recordings, and radio calls. The policy requires that these videos be edited to protect the identities of people who are not adults or who are victims of certain crimes.

Under the policy, the chief of police is the only one who can determine that a delay in releasing the video is neccessary.

Critical incidents under this policy include officer-involved shootings, use of force resulting in death or serious bodily injury, all deaths while an arrestee or detainee is in custodial care, and any other encounter where the chief decides releasing video “furthers a law enforcement purpose.”

If the Chief of Police decides that no video will be released after a critical incident, the department is required to post a statement summarizing reasons for this decision within 45 days of the incident, explaining whether it is possible to release that video in the future.

The reasons a chief cites for delaying a video release “must have a factual basis and be specific to the individual case.” Any decisions to delay the release of a critical incident video will be reassessed every 30 days afterward, the policy says.

48 hours prior to the release of this video, the department is required to attempt to notify:

  • The officers seen in or involved with the incident
  • The subject on whom force was used or that subject’s family or legal guardians
  • The subject’s attorney
  • The district attorney’s office and the city attorney’s office
  • The Office of Police Oversight
  • Other entities connected to the incident “as deemed appropriate.”

The policy makes it clear that OPO’s role in creating the video is not just a quick glance at the finished product: “APD shall consult and seek feedback from the Office of Police Oversight during the production of the video for public release.”

Posted critical incident videos are required to remain on the website for at least two years following the date they were posted.

Austin Police Association president Ken Casaday said APA has been supportive of the process creating this policy.

“We’ve seen how they do it in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and it’s the best and quickest way of letting the community know what happened at a critical event like that,” said Casaday, who believes these videos should be shared with context.

As for Mike Ramos’ case, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore has said she hopes to bring the case before a grand jury this summer. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told Austin City Council last week that the earliest a grand jury could be empaneled for the case would be August.

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