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A four-month investigation reveals Houston's $8 million police body-camera program is falling short of its promise.
Editor's Note: This story contains graphic content.
The breathing is frantic. The movements are sharp.
A police officer points his handgun at an object blocked from the view of the camera. The officer’s right arm, the one with a portrait of a woman tattooed, holds the gun steady.
His left hand adjusts the lens of his body camera.
A voice cries out in the distance.
A beam of light shines on a man in a blood-stained white shirt as he takes his dying breaths.
His blood trickles over the pavement. An ambulance is minutes away. Nearly a dozen policemen patrol the scene.
One of the officers asks his partner: “Did you click on your camera right away?”
In the past decade, Houston police shot 243 people—98 died. One was Alva Braziel, the man killed in the middle of a southeast Houston intersection, and the the first to die while Houston police wore body cameras.
In an era of smartphones and social media, videos of officer-involved shootings are increasingly common. The recordings fuel much of the public’s mistrust and anger toward police, sparking protests across the nation: Baltimore. Charlotte. Baton Rouge. Chicago.
It’s why police departments nationwide are investing so much in body cameras, tools touted as the blueprints to transparency. The mounted camera is supposed to capture a scene, giving a visual play-by-play when the police meet the public.
The lack of transparency re-opened wounds of racial tension in August 2014 when police fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. At the time, body cameras were only in a handful of major metro police departments. Witness statements and the officer's account were the only documentation. The contradicting stories erupted civil unrest nationwide.
Later that year, then-Houston Chief of Police Charles McClelland asked to equip the largest police force in Texas with body cameras, with a planned deployment of 4,100 cameras over the next three years.
McClelland believed the technology could change behavior of both officers and citizens, fostering more accountability.
Members of the public, such as civic leader Sandra Massie Hines, begged Houston City Council for the implementation of body cameras.
“I believe that it is essential to purchase body cameras now to be worn by police,” Hines told the council on Nov. 10, 2015. “The people are screaming for you to do something now.”
This interactive map shows all Houston police shootings from 2010-2016. The gold circle represents the July 9 shooting of Alva Braziel, the first person shot after Houston police deployed body cameras. (Source: Houston Police Department. Interactive map created by January Advisors.)
Then came July 9 and a fatal encounter at a southeast Houston intersection.
Security video from a distant gas station camera captures the 15 seconds that led to Alva Braziel’s death. The silent, grainy footage shows Braziel walking into the street at the exact moment a patrol car approaches. He raises his arms and spins in a circle, then steps toward the vehicle. Its doors open. Police fire multiple shots and Braziel drops to the ground.
The video is too blurry to tell whether Braziel pointed the gun in his right hand at officers.
As for the body-camera video?
While both officers were wearing body cameras, the first didn’t begin recording until 49 seconds after shots were fired. It was another 30 seconds before the other officer hit record.
Braziel’s shooting followed a deadly seven days where police in Baton Rouge, La., and St. Paul, Minn., killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, respectively, sparking protests in those cities.
Hoping to quell rising tensions at home, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner released the video of Braziel’s shooting 12 days after his death.
“Based on the exigent circumstances, I didn’t want another officer shot at or killed,” Turner said.
Nikita Braziel, Alva’s wife, will never know if her husband actually pointed a gun at police.
“I didn’t hear them say, ‘Stop. Freeze. Put the gun down. Get down.’ None of that,” Nikita said. “Why weren’t the body cameras on?”
Nikita said her husband was in the neighborhood that night looking for his missing horse. Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, questioned that story, pointing to Alva Braziel’s criminal history of felony drug convictions.
Hunt defended the officers’ actions based on the department’s policy.
That policy requires officers to turn on cameras when a citizen flags them down, but also allows officers to delay the immediate activation of that camera if it's impractical or if an officer's safety is in danger.
“If the officer’s primary responsibility was his safety, he passed,” Hunt said of the July 9 shooting. “If his primary responsibility was videotaping the entire scene, he failed. … But that’s not his primary responsibility. His primary responsibility is to make sure he’s safe and the public is safe.”
But in the black community, the video raised even more questions since it didn’t show the shooting in its entirety. Activists like Jerry Ford Jr. of Black Lives Matter spoke out against the lack of transparency before a city council meeting in July.
“We didn’t spend $8 million for body cameras to see the aftermath,” Ford said. “This is not a conservative issue, or a liberal issue, or a black or white issue. We’re spending $8 million for show.”
Problems with Houston’s body-camera program are much bigger than just one case.
Using Texas open records laws, KHOU obtained emails between prosecutors and police showing confusion, disarray and frustration in obtaining videos as the city rolled out the program.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office identified 729 criminal cases where no video was available even though the officers involved were assigned body cameras.
While Houston Acting Chief of Police Martha Montalvo didn’t dispute the district attorney’s numbers, she ordered her own review of the DA’s findings.
“We never said we were experts in this,” Montalvo said in an exclusive interview. “We knew this was a learning curve.”
She maintained no video was misplaced or lost.
“There has never been a single situation, or a case, where evidence was not provided to the district attorney’s office,” Montalvo said. “Ever.”
That isn’t true.
After that interview, the district attorney’s office provided documents that showed Houston police found videos for 162 cases. Of those, 132 were given to prosecutors after the cases were closed.
Houston City Council Member Michael Kubosh claimed the city’s body-camera program was rushed through.
“The public is expecting for the cameras to be used for the protection of the officer and the protection of the citizen,” Kubosh said. “And then the video is asked for and there’s no video.
“It’s an insult to the public.”
Stakes are high. As of Nov. 9, police shot and killed 823 people in America this year, according to The Washington Post. Of those, 95 had body-camera recordings.
But the mere existence of body camera does not guarantee total transparency. The July 9 shooting of Alva Braziel proves that. The public is left without the full picture of what really happened.
Instead, the first frames will always begin with a man breathing his death song, his blood dispersing across the pavement, as his cold eyes look at his shooter.
The officer kneels next to his body and whispers.
The public has the right to see body-cam videos, but only after the case results in a defendant’s conviction on criminal charges.
In June, KHOU requested body-cam video from 75 incidents from HPD in which use of force could be an issue and where allegations of police misconduct often arise: resisting arrest, evading arrest, interfering with the duties of a public servant and assault on a public servant.
Of those 75 incidents, HPD released footage from eight.
"We get an 'F' mark, we flunk," Houston City Council Member Dave Martin said. "Eight of 75 is not what we were looking for."
Of those eight videos released, not a single recording fully followed the department’s body-camera policy.
In one case, the video doesn't begin until after the suspect is already in custody. In two others, officers take off their body cameras and lay them in the car.
In another case, the video begins black. The only sound is of something rubbing against the camera's microphone.
A hand appears, then clenches into a fist.
The back of a white man’s head comes into view as he chokes for air.
He gasps once, twice, then silence.
His head hits the pavement as an arm releases his neck from a chokehold. The man looks into the camera.
“What are you doing to me? What are y’all doing to me?” he cries.
The officer’s written account states the man resisted arrest by “pushing, pulling and grabbing onto the officer,” causing both to fall to the ground.
Without complete body-camera footage, there's no way to verify those claims.
Randall Kallinen is a civil rights lawyer in Houston who has filed at least 100 cases involving police misconduct. He reviewed two of the videos. The lack of video evidence from the chokehold incident raised more questions than answers for Kallinen, who graded the video a “solid F.”
“What was it that made the officer feel it was justified to use any force whatsoever?” Kallinen said. “Without that missing section, we can’t tell whether the force was justified or unjustified.”
Houston police said that during the initial encounter, the officer’s body camera was temporarily disabled “it appears from a fall.”
The department also didn’t release the missing section due to privacy laws since it took place in a private residence.
Kallinen also reviewed video showing an officer tase a Hispanic man who repeatedly lunges at officers. The recording begins with the man in a boxer's stance, appearing ready to fight as officers order him to the ground.
After ignoring several commands, the suspect charges at one of the officers with his fists raised. The officer’s partner shoots his Taser into the man’s back. He lets out a sharp groan as thousands of volts of electricity jolt his body, causing him to fall forward and hit his head on a car bumper.
“It did seem to be an appropriate use because he had already threatened the officers with physical violence several times,” Kallinen said of the officers' actions. “This example would assure the public that the arrest is happening properly and there was no use of excessive force.”
To date, Houston police do not routinely review their videos to monitor whether officers follow policy.
Houston’s commitment to transparency was flawed from the start. In city council meetings last November, several council members—both for and against the implementation of body cameras— talked fervently against the purchase of cameras without a policy already in place.
Several council members, such as Brenda Stardig, thought the process was rushed.
“We do not have a complete policy in place,” Stardig said in a city council meeting on Nov. 8, 2015. “It is irresponsible for us to make this purchase at this point. We are talking about millions of dollars in a purchase of equipment that we have not fully defined our scope of work.”
Council Member Larry Green was also against buying a tool that had no policy.
“So congratulations, if this is what you think good government is,” he said. “Because now we have a vendor ... but we don’t know the policy, which is going to guide or govern that.”
Houston approved the purchase that month. It took another four months before a policy was in place.
That delay led to problems in almost every area of the program: from recording and redacting to retrieval and release.
Of the 67 remaining videos requested, HPD said it would release seven more, but it would take 116 business days to retrieve the videos, redact private information and release them to the public.
Other cities, such as San Francisco, fulfilled similar requests within a few weeks. In Denver, police released several discs from one incident within five days.
How does Montalvo, HPD's interim chief, grade her department’s use of body cameras?
“We’re probably at a B,” she said.
And her department’s ability to timely release video?
“We’re working on that.”
And her department’s transparency?
“Are we being transparent? Yes, we are.”
A handful of city council members, like Martin, were concerned about HPD’s handling of the video evidence. HPD insisted on storing and managing the video in-house. However, 34 other major cities use a third-party private vendor that stores evidence in the cloud.
The decision to store video in-house traces back to former Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
She believed it would save taxpayers money since cloud storage comes with a large up-front cost.
“My thought was that if we went with the cloud storage, we couldn’t backtrack that,” Parker said. “But if we stored it in-house and it didn't work, we could always reevaluate it.”
Parker acknowledged that at the time of HPD’s purchase, she had concerns about whether the department would be able to handle the management of video evidence by itself.
“You have to be able to retrieve it and retrieve it timely,” she said. “What’s the point of having the data if you can’t retrieve it timely?”
When it comes to retrieving video to satisfy requests from the public, Houston police were not prepared. That’s evident in a series of emails from the department’s open records unit. Problems lie in an antiquated computer system unable to handle the influx of data.
The department also has problems redacting confidential information in videos, like driver's license numbers.
City leaders touted transparency—its importance, its accountability—during the roll-out of Houston’s body-camera program. The cameras are so new and are wanted in such high-demand, but the nuances are complex. The intricacies of implementation and effective use are more than just outfitting a cop with a camera.
Every police encounter is a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. When the recording starts late or only a portion is released, the whole story is untold—like in the case of a man who's gasping for air while locked in an officer’s chokehold.
“What are you doing to me? What are y’all doing to me?,” the man cries out. “I’m calling the cops. I’m calling them.”
A voice from behind the lens answers: “I am the cops.”
L ife in America today is highly documented.
Smartphones have given people the power to record any occasion—from a child’s first steps to a man’s dying breaths—and broadcast it worldwide through social media.
As tensions between the police and the public rise, every encounter can be just as easily documented. Because of recent shootings, officers continue to face intense scrutiny nationwide. The lens on an officer’s chest is a new layer of protection for both the officer and the community.
But it can also increase tensions when it doesn’t capture an entire encounter.
That's what happened in the case of Alva Braziel, who was shot and lay dying in the streets by the time officers pressed record.
Or in the case of Paul O’Neal, who was shot and killed by a Chicago officer who failed to press record.
Or in the case of Lamontez Ardelbert Jones, who was shot and killed by San Diego police who also failed to press record.
INTERACTIVE MAP: Body-camera programs across the nation
There are options to take the human error out of the equation: automatic activation.
The feature takes the act of pressing record out of an officer's hands and places it in wireless technology. In Grand Rapids, Mich., cameras begin recording when an officer flips on his lights and sirens. In Austin, cameras activate when the door to the patrol car opens.
Both cities have contracts with Taser International. Steve Tuttle, Taser’s vice president of strategic communications, demonstrated the camera’s safeguards.
“If I maybe see a person right here getting beat up I may jump out of this car simultaneously so fast that I actually forget to turn the camera on,” Tuttle said. “In this particular car, if you open the front door, it will automatically send a signal to turn all the cameras on.
“It takes the workload off (the officer) and makes it seamless. That way we’re not missing something that might later be very, very important.”
Houston’s vendor, WatchGuard, doesn’t offer automatic activation. It does, however, offer pre-record, which allows the camera to capture video even before an officer presses record. The setting is a safety net intended to cut down on human error.
HPD’s initial body-cam policy set the pre-record to 30 seconds. After the deadly shooting of Braziel, HPD changed its pre-record time to two minutes.
“I just believed I needed more time to capture the incident and I think the two minutes will do that for me,” Montalvo said.
Ray Hunt, union president, believes two minutes is too much time.
“When it was 30 seconds, we were perfectly fine with it,” he said. “That’s the national average.”
Hunt worries extending the pre-record threatens officers' privacy.
“Transparency can only go so far,” he said. “Transparency is what I am doing whenever I’m performing a police action. That is fair game. ...
“Going to the restroom? No. That’s not what anybody has a right to see. Not a supervisor. Not Internal Affairs. And hell no, not the public.”
There’s also a function that can capture an entire shift of video called Record-After-the-Fact (RATF).
A WatchGuard promotion video states that RATF “can be configured to constantly buffer video in the background throughout the day, even if the system is not actively recording. You can go back in time and recover that video even a day or two after it happened.”
The company markets that feature as a way to “never miss an incident.”
Houston police chose not to activate RATF.
WatchGuard provides the feature at no additional cost.
IS ANYBODY WATCHING?
S ix months before deploying body cameras onto Houston streets, police promised the public to check that officers are recording when it counts.
Six months later, Houston police haven’t fulfilled that promise.
Under Texas’ open records laws, KHOU made three separate record requests.
The first: Body-camera audits done by supervisors.
There were no responsive records.
The second: Any data on when officers don’t record per policy.
There were no responsive records.
The third: Any reports, in general, about body-camera compliance.
There were no responsive records.
Council Member Kubosh calls the lack of oversight unacceptable and a clear violation of department policy.
“It’s a black eye to the commanders who are not following this general order,” he said.
Other cities complete reviews routinely.
In Fort Worth, Texas, police conduct audits of random officers to ensure calls have corresponding videos.
Denver conducts audits every Monday to verify video evidence is properly labeled and categorized so it isn’t prematurely deleted.
New Orleans conducts monthly audits of all its officers across all divisions checking for officers who aren't recording when they should be.
Transparency is not just a saying in New Orleans, it’s the goal for Deputy Superintendent Danny Murphy’s agency. The U.S. Department of Justice refers to NOPD as the gold standard of body-camera transparency.
“It’s a way to ensure that we’re using the cameras appropriately to allow them to fulfill their purpose of enhancing transparency and accountability,” Murphy said. “We’re confident that there is no incident that could take place and us not have the transparent documentation of what happened.”
The New Orleans Police Department creates monthly scorecards of body-camera compliance. In May 2015, the scorecard revealed officers failing to record when required. A year later, the May 2016 scorecard indicates major improvement—a 98 percent compliance rate—across the entire department. Use the slider to move between the two scorecards.
To date, HPD is unaware of how many times officers don’t record when required.
“To me, it’s like making sausage in the dark,” Kubosh said. “Because you don’t know what’s going on and you don’t know what you’re putting in it.”
That lack of transparency is impacting justice in Harris County courtrooms. More than 30 Houston-area criminal defense attorneys complained of problems with body-camera videos involving footage that was unobtainable, incomplete and even non-existent.
Attorney Eddie Gomez defended a client in an assault case where the video raised more questions than it answered.
Gomez requested footage from two responding officers who were equipped with body cameras. He said he received only one video. As for the other?
“I have no idea to this day,” Gomez said.
The official written police report indicates officers interviewed two witnesses at the scene, but none of that is shown on video. The video begins with his client in the back seat of a patrol car.
“Certainly if something is on video, then it speaks for itself and we won’t have to guess about whether the officer ad-libbed or paraphrased something,” Gomez said.
The same could be said for that night in July when a man walked into an intersection in southeast Houston and was shot dead by police.
Instead of transparency, all that's left is a murky combination of the officers’ recollections, grainy security footage and two body cameras that were turned on as Alva Braziel lay dying in the street.
More than 800 people were shot and killed by police this year nationwide.
Alva Braziel was No. 521.