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Importance of Surveillance Footage in Law Enforcement is Growing

Dispute over Harris County, Texas, jail video highlights the growing prevalence of using videotape to review actions by officers in making arrests and by detention officers in their treatment of inmates in jail.

by James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle / September 6, 2016

(TNS) -- The family of an inmate who died last year in the custody of the Harris County, Texas, Jail after contracting bacterial meningitis is demanding that state and local prosecutors investigate the Sheriff's Office for allegedly destroying cellblock videotape footage they asked be preserved at the time of his death.

The Sheriff's Office denies evidence was destroyed and contends there were no cameras installed in the cellblock where Patrick Green was lodged, in the main infirmary of the jail complex, or in the sally port where he was transported to a local hospital.

The dispute highlights the growing prevalence of using videotape to review actions by officers in making arrests and by detention officers in their treatment of inmates in jail.

In July, Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered the immediate release of body cam videotape taken by two officers in the shooting of Alva Braziel to establish that he was armed at the time of his fatal encounter with police. Turner said he wanted the public to see both videos to confirm that Braziel had a gun and to quell protests that might be based on the false premise that police had shot an unarmed black man.

A little over a year ago, the Waller County Jail released nearly three hours of video to show that nothing unusual happened on Sandra Bland's cellblock on the morning in July 2015 when she was found hanging in her cell following a traffic stop several days earlier. Her death was ruled a suicide.

In the Harris County Jail, incomplete video coverage by outdated surveillance cameras that cannot store footage has constituted a long-standing deficiency at the jail complex and has raised questions about the ability to hold inmates and guards accountable for their actions inside the crowded jail.

Two projects that upgrade or expand cameras are underway, according to information released from Sheriff Ron Hickman, who took office in May 2015. A $1.4 million project will provide 600 upgraded digital cameras in the main jail at 1200 Baker Street from the original 150 and a $3.4 million project will expand the network of 384 cameras in the 701 San Jacinto jail to 1,600 high-definition digital cameras.

Evidence 'destroyed'

City officials in Houston, meanwhile, are still grappling with issues around how to store videotape and when to release it. The city decided to store video in-house, and former Chief Charles McClelland said before retiring that HPD's policy would be to release video after the conclusion of internal affairs and criminal investigations. Turner's decision to release videos of the Braziel shooting much sooner only demonstrated their potential to help establish the facts in an incident.

In the latest dispute involving the death in the Harris County jail, the mother and siblings of Green, 27, who died of bacterial meningitis on March 25, 2015, held a news conference on the steps outside the 1200 Baker St. jail on Wednesday and asked for prosecutors to bring criminal charges for destruction of evidence.

On the day Green died, attorneys for the family delivered letters to former sheriff Adrian Garcia's staff and Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan asking they preserve any video or audio tapes and other records related to his death.

"But instead of preserving them, they destroyed them," said Randall Kallinen, a Houston civil rights attorney. "They cannot say they did not know."

Kallinen noted a Houston law firm hired by Green's parents alerted Harris County on March 25 that the family planned to bring a liability claim for damages. The family's letter asked county officials to preserve "all evidence" relating to Green's death, including video and audio tapes, surveillance tapes, photographs, medical records, incident reports, jail logs and a large category of other records.

"Patrick Green died because he did not get treated for bacterial meningitis. He was sick for days - making requests, asking for medical help - which all were denied,'' said Kallinen.

He said two jail inmates later told the family that Green repeatedly asked jailers for medical attention. Green's mother, Kathryn Green, a Houston attorney, said the county first told her they would ask the Texas attorney general to allow them to withhold the records she requested under the open records law.

"They are cherry picking and saying what wasn't there, but they are not denying there is video in the hallways and the vestibules where he made the request, if he did, for medical help," Kathryn Green said, adding her son first sought treatment for meningitis on March 19, five days before he died. "I know inmates said he made requests for medical help at least twice before his death."

Family cites letter

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, through a spokesman, would not confirm whether they are investigating the claim of destruction of jail records. Kayleigh Lovvorn, a spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General's office, said the agency could not confirm, or deny, any possible investigation over the destruction of documents.

Hickman, in a statement, denied any evidence was destroyed. He said there were no cameras installed in the cellblock where Green was housed, or in the jail infirmary at the main Baker Street jail, or where Green was loaded into an ambulance.

"No video, audio, or photographs ever existed of the described locations during the time period identified in the request" by the Green family, the statement said. "No video, audio or photographs were destroyed."

The family's contention that evidence was destroyed is based in part on the June 16 reply by the County Attorney's Office to Kathryn Green's request, under the Texas Public Information Act, for video tapes and infirmary records she made to the county in May of this year.

The June letter from the county attorney said the Sheriff's Office had searched through its records and archives, but did not find any jail records related to her request.

"According the Sheriff's Office, records of the type you have requested are generally kept for 30 days before being transferred to archives. Once in the archives, the records are retained for 90 days before being destroyed," the letter states.

Request not specific

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County Attorney, said the Green's preservation letter of March 25 was not specific enough and should have included the identifying number of Green's jail cell.

"If you want to be fair about it, then the original demand to preserve evidence should have said 'Please preserve all the video and evidence from Pod 3CV' … and it did not say that," Soard said.

He also said his office's reply to the Green's request stated the Sheriff's retention policy, and was not confirmation that documents had been destroyed.

Soard added the county does not know if the video tapes ever existed, since the sheriff's office has told his office most areas in the county jail are equipped with surveillance cameras that only monitor areas of the jail but are not capable of recording or storing the footage.

"I can't tell you which cameras record and which don't, but I'm told most cameras at the jail do not record video. Now if there were records destroyed we are not aware of that, but we are certainly looking into that allegation," Soard said. "Based on these allegations and claims, they're making a thorough search and we're working with the Sheriff to make sure evidence is not destroyed."

Kallinen said a jail supervisor has told the family there is a camera trained on the hall outside of the cellblock, and that would be central to their claim the inmate repeatedly asked for medical attention.

"Our insider says there are cameras in the hall outside the pod that would show where Patrick Green put his request for medical care into request box," Kallinen said. "In those three places there may not be cameras, but we never said there was."

Green, a graduate of Baylor University, had been in county jail for three months after he was arrested in December 2014 for violating a probated sentence for drug possession. He died as he waited transfer to a Texas prison to serve out his sentence.

©2016 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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