What should have been the routine approval of Bexar County's $1.7 billion budget for 2016 was overshadowed as Commissioners addressed last week's videotaped shooting of a San Antonio man by two sheriff's deputies that has become the latest incident to attract nationwide protest over excessive force by law enforcement officers.
Two Bexar County sheriff's deputies, Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez, fatally shot 41-year-old Gilbert Flores outside of his house on Walnut Pass in Leon Springs on Friday after responding to a domestic violence call. Flores appears to hold his arms over his head in submission seconds before both deputies shot him at close range. A man named Michael Thomas provided a video of the shooting to KSAT-TV, which broadcast the video on Monday.
Vasquez and Sanchez, who were not wearing body cameras and have offered a different narrative of events leading up to the shooting, have been placed on paid administrative leave. The fatal shooting has hung like a dark cloud over all other County business since late last week, is now under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and has become a national story.
The incident was brought before Commissioners Court on Tuesday when the Bexar County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Manuel Longoria requested funds to purchase additional body cameras for deputies. The new budget includes nearly $800,000 for vehicle dashboard and body cameras. Originally, the court allocated $634,000 for body cameras, but Commissioners sensitive to the import of this latest incident revisited the subject Tuesday and increased the funding.
San Antonio Police Department officers also are receiving significant funding for the purchase of body cameras for its officers, although it will be some time before all officers are wearing cameras.
Longoria asked for an additional $184,000 to purchase body cameras for those police officers who issue warrants away from their vehicles.
"We are hoping the cameras will create better behavior on both sides," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.
Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) said a body camera would have captured footage of Friday's shooting that was not in the original video.
"What was not clear from the video that we saw was the deputy report with respect to the 20 minutes prior to the struggle which a body camera would have gotten," Calvert said, adding that the County needs to "act fast" and buy the body cameras because "we are a big city, we're a big county with big city, big county problems."
Calvert criticized the Bexar County Sheriff's Office for how it handled its response to the video and media coverage.
"I think (Sheriff Susan Pamerleau's) personal response was outstanding, but I think our Sheriff's (Office) Facebook posting was completely inappropriate," he said.
The Bexar County Sheriff's Office stated on its Facebook page that "people from outside our community have bombarded us with inappropriate comments, and today, physical threats toward our deputies. These deputies have not been charged with a crime and a family lost their loved one. This is unethical and sad. Call KSAT-TV and let them know what you think – (210) 351-1277. If you agree, let the local media know this sort of sensational behavior doesn't fly in Bexar County."
The Sheriff's Office posted this comment to Facebook later in the day on Monday:
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro issued a critical statement Tuesday that reinforced the County's decision to provide more funding for body cameras.
“This incident is further evidence that police officers and deputies should wear body cameras," Castro stated. "The widely supported technology brings transparency and accountability that protects law enforcement and civilians alike. With regard to the specific case in San Antonio, I trust that District Attorney Nico LaHood will pursue an indictment if all the evidence merits it.”
The dashboard and body cameras will activate automatically rather than by officer intervention. The dashboard camera will register a patrol car's siren or increase in speed, and the body camera will activate whenever a police officer makes a sudden movement. The camera will continue to roll until it recognizes that the abrupt movements have subsided.
Judge Wolff questioned the regulations police officers follow regarding the use of force.
"There are different steps that you take that depend on the situation," Longoria replied. "All of our law enforcement officers are required to put in 40 hours every two years by state mandate and that covers use of force."
Calvert said the camera's footage should be stored for a year before the data is discarded.
"If someone is going to complain about the use of force they are probably going to complain within a year," Calvert said.
The Bexar County Sheriff's Office is working with District Attorney Nico LaHood to determine that length of time, Longoria replied.
Other than providing the additional funds for the purchase of body cameras, the Commissioners Court made no other adjustments to the budget. Read more about the budget here from yesterday's work session.
The budget passed with a four-to-one vote. Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Prct. 3) voted against the budget for two reasons: First, he disagreed with the Bexar County property tax rate of $0.3145 per $100 valuation, unchanged from last year's rate.
"This past year the appraisal district really hit property owners hard with valuation increases. Your average value increased 11-12% for homeowners," he said. "The only way to offset that sort of increase is by a corresponding tax rate decrease."
Second, Commissioner Wolff said he "philosophically disagrees with ignoring the market price" and bumping up the salary of living wage workers from $11.66 an hour to $13 an hour.
Although Wolff expressed his concerns, he said he agreed with the other 90% of the budget.
*Featured/top image: Bexar County commissioners (from left) Sergio "Chico" Rodriguez (Pct. 1), Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2), County Judge Nelson Wolff, Kevin Wolff ( Pct. 3) and Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4). Photo by Joan Vinson.