Houston Police Can Show Us What Happened When Alva Braziel Was Shot, But Will They?
Texas’s latest police shooting is the first major test to the transparency of HPD’s new body camera program.
The day after Houston police shot and killed Alva Braziel, an intrepid local TV news reporter went to a nearby gas station and found footage from a security camera that captured Braziel’s death from afar. The video shows Braziel standing in the middle of the street with his hands in the air as an HPD cruiser rolls to a stop a few yards in front of him. Less than thirty seconds later, Braziel collapses in a heap, dead. He was shot ten times.
According to local ABC affiliate KTRK, the Houston Police Department said Braziel was waving a gun in the air. The two officers said that they asked him to drop the gun, and Braziel eventually lowered it and pointed it toward the officers. The gas station’s surveillance footage doesn’t conclusively show whether Braziel pointed a gun at the police or not, but the existence of any such video at all is a rarity in Houston.
The New York Times reported on the city’s absence of video footage of police violence in February, noting that since 2005, HPD shot at more than 460 people and killed 111. According to HPD records, 20 percent of those shot at were unarmed, and most of them have no video footage to show exactly what happened. The result of this lack of video evidence, combined with HPD’s internal review process—which separate investigations by the Houston Chronicle, Texas Observer, and Houston Press have found to be flawed—is that HPD has not had an “unjustified” shooting in more than a decade. An HPD officer hasn’t been charged in a shooting in twelve years.
Braziel’s died right in front of the police cruiser, and it would have been in clear view of a dashboard camera had the cruiser been equipped with one. But only about 200 HPD patrol cars (about five percent of the department’s fleet) have dashboard cameras. HPD doesn’t seem inclined to change this, opting to focus on body cameras instead.
But even the implementation of body cameras have been slow moving. HPD said that the officers involved in Braziel’s fatal shooting were both equipped with body cameras, which is new to Houston. In 2014, HPD and the City of Houston began a pilot program that outfitted 100 officers with body cameras, but the program stalled for two years amid questions of how to fund the program and what policies and guidelines the department would create for the cameras. Finally, in April, the department announced it would begin rolling out 4,100 body cameras for its officers over the next eighteen months.
On Monday, Mayor Sylvester Turner asked the Department of Justice to review Braziel’s death and called on HPD to release whatever footage it has as soon as possible, because, as he said in a statement, “tensions are running high.” Turner’s plea has been met with silence so far. HPD has yet to release any footage of the incident, and it’s unclear when—or if—the department will do so.
A statewide body camera law passed in 2015 could make it more difficult for the public to get ahold of police videos, while HPD’s own body camera policy gives the department the ability to keep important footage from going public. Writes the Houston Press: “the policy allows HPD’s Internal Affairs Division to decide to make certain footage ‘confidential,’ mostly following officer-involved shootings, use of force that causes serious injuries, or ‘allegations of serious misconduct’—basically, all the types of footage that are high-stakes and of public importance. [HPD Chief Martha] Montalvo said that the reason for this is so that no one can tamper with the video; it becomes ‘evidentiary’ and needs to be preserved.” If HPD chooses to, they could possibly withhold their video of Braziel’s shooting for years until the department completes its own investigation, or longer.
Other law enforcement agencies vary in the time it takes them to release footage of controversial incidents. In nearby Waller County last July, officials quickly made public a video from a dashboard camera showing the arrest of Sandra Bland, which played an important role in state trooper Brian Encinia’s indictment later on. In Austin, police released dashboard camera footage from the fatal shooting of unarmed, naked teen David Joseph three months after his death in February. In one of Houston’s only cases of a police shooting that was actually documented on video—the fatal shooting of Jordan Baker in 2014—the City of Houston did not release surveillance video from a store near the scene of the shooting until almost a year later.
The slow release of the Baker video infuriated then-mayor Annise Parker. “I think it could have been sooner handled,” Parker said when the video was released, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I just want to make sure that as videos are released in the future, it’s done by policy and by schedule—not by what’s on the video itself. If it’s embarrassing, it’s embarrassing. If it has the potential to incite people, we have to know that and we have to handle how the video is released in a way that’s safe. It shouldn’t be ‘well there’s nothing on it, we can release it’—that’s not good public policy. That’s not transparency. That’s not what we want to have happen.”
HPD has a chance to do things differently this time around, and how it handles the video of Braziel’s shooting could provide a glimpse at how the department will publicly respond to police shootings in the future. But whether HPD’s new commitment to body cameras also translates to a new commitment to transparency still remains to be seen.