When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced last week that the city would release body camera footage captured by the police officer who shot and killed Alva Braziel, he promised the tape would clarify what happened and debunk rumors that Braziel was unarmed. And last Thursday, less than two weeks after Braziel’s death, the footage was released following a press conference.
You can watch it here. (Warning: it’s extremely graphic.) At the very beginning of the footage, Braziel’s bleeding, motionless body is seen on the ground. An officer walks up to Braziel and removes a revolver from his right hand, which appears to fulfill Turner’s promise that Braziel was armed. But the footage failed to clarify what many see as the most important part of Braziel’s interaction with the officers: the moment of the actual shooting. Instead, the officer’s camera did not start recording until after Braziel was shot.
Although the exact circumstances of Braziel’s death apparently unfolded without documentation, the release of the video does shed some light on how we can expect Texas’s largest municipal police force to handle the newly purchased body cameras that it is gradually equipping thousands of its officers with.
Before the footage was released, we wrote that Braziel’s shooting would be the first major test of HPD’s body camera program. The department’s written policy for body cameras gives it the right to classify footage that captures “incidents involving deadly force, serious bodily injury or allegations of serious misconduct” as confidential. It seems the most controversial interactions with police would fall under those categories, giving the department the ability to withhold footage from officer-involved shootings indefinitely. In Braziel’s case, however, the footage was released quickly.
When we asked HPD spokesman John Cannon whether we should expect the department to publicly release footage from officer-involved shootings with the same forthrightness in the future, he pointed out that it was the mayor’s decision to release the Braziel footage, not HPD’s, and that the department will continue to “abide by state law.” In the press conference, Turner made it clear that his intervention was a one-time thing. Cannon also told us that any requests from the public to release body camera footage would more than likely be punted to the attorney general’s office, which can sometimes take months to decide whether the information in question should be released.
Even if HPD body camera footage is made available to the public, the video of Braziel shows that there is no guarantee that an officer’s camera will have captured anything important. But when the officer failed to turn his body camera on prior to the shooting, he acted within HPD’s policy for activating the devices. According to the policy, an officer is not required to flip on his body camera if “it is immediately necessary for the officer to act in order to ensure his safety or the safety of others.” Again, officer-involved shootings would seem to fall under that description—in Braziel’s case, HPD says the officer didn’t even have enough time to bring his cruiser to a full stop, never mind the precious seconds it would take to turn on his camera.
Still, even if the officer in this incident didn’t have time to turn on the camera, the footage raises troubling questions: if the public won’t see body camera footage except for in special circumstances where the mayor decides to get involved, then how can officers be consistently held accountable? And if the body cameras aren’t activated in time to capture the most crucial moments of an incident, then what is the purpose of having them?