Videos of Austin police incidents may soon be more readily released to the public

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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).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At an Austin Public Safety Commission Meeting Monday, commissioners were shown a video produced by the Los Angeles Police Department about an officer-involved shooting that happened in LA on February 14, 2019.

The video of the actual shooting and the events leading up to it were sandwiched between context offered by several police spokespeople, a birds-eye view of the area where the shooting happened, and text-on screen spelling out relevant details like why viewable footage was limited.

Farah Muscadin, Austin’s Director in the Office of Police Oversight, explained to commissioners that Austin Police are seeking to create videos modeling a similar structure to the ones LA is doing.

The intent is to release videos to the public of “critical incidents” like officer-involved shootings and use of force alongside the context details Austin Police Department believes are necessary to understand the full picture of these events.

APD has been working to craft this policy along with the Office of Police Oversight, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and several community groups.

Austin City Council asked for this policy to be complete by the end of March, and Austin Police Assistant Chief Troy Gay believes the department is on track for that date, saying the policy is “90% complete.”

Under this policy, the department would automatically release these context-added videos for officer-involved shootings, use-of-force cases resulting in death or serious bodily injury, in-custody deaths, or any other encounter where Austin Police Chief Brian Manley believes releasing the video furthers law enforcement’s purpose.

Ultimately, the decision to release the video is up to Manley and if he decides to do so, APD will have to post the context-added video to a publicly accessible website within 90 days of the incident.

Manley can also opt to delay the release of video under certain circumstances such as if the integrity of an active investigation would be compromised by releasing the video.

If Manley does not authorize the release of the video after a critical incident, APD will post a statement summarizing why within 60 days of the incident and will notify the officers involved, the subject upon whom force was used, the District Attorney and City Attorney’s Offices, and the Office of Police Oversight.

Muscadin described this new policy as “APD just being proactive in terms of [the] information it is providing to the community about critical incidents.”

The goal is not just to hand out raw footage of incidents by itself — you will still have to file a public information request to get that. Instead, APD is aiming to release relevant footage of incidents coupled with added context.

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.

“If we have video, people should see it, period,” Muscadin said.

But she believes from watching other cases unfold across the country that releasing raw footage of these critical incidents without context can cause problems.

“Because it’s not only about providing information but it’s about educating the public and also about alleviating any sort of misinformation that might be out there,” Muscadin said.

“This is meant 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,” she told the commission.

Public Safety Commissioner Chris Harris expressed some concerns based on the L.A. video shown that these new APD videos might automatically bring up the prior criminal history of the people in the video.

Assistant Chief Gay assured Harris that “we agree that that doesn’t have any bearing on the particular incident itself.”

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday believes that releasing more of this video may give the public a better perspective on why police officers do what they do.

Regarding this new critical incident release policy, Casaday said, “we’re supportive of it, as long as they follow the law we are supportive of it.”

“There’s going to be people wanting to push, release-this and release-that, but the state’s been pretty clear about what can be released and what can’t,” Casaday said, noting that under state rules video can only be released if the police chief agrees to it.

“It will be a lot of pressure on him,” Casaday noted, talking about Manley.

Once the policy is complete, it will be up to Austin police leadership to put it into effect, Muscadin said.

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