APD to make communication changes with family of victims killed in officer-involved shootings

Austin police are looking at making some changes to their policies, specifically how they communicate with the families of people killed in officer-involved shootings. 

The changes come after an emotional Public Safety Commission meeting Monday night, where some families claimed police made their grief even worse.

"I never got no communication. Nobody came out to me to talk about anything," said Elizabeth Gonzales, whose son Alex Gonzales was killed by an on-duty Austin police officer in Southeast Austin in 2021 after an apparent road rage incident involving an off-duty officer escalated into violence.

"Why did it take 140 days to see the body cam?" said Gonzales.

Gonzales faults the department for taking months to release that video, or, she says, to even reach out at all.

"You ain't even told me ‘I’m sorry that an officer did that’. Nothing," said Gonzales.

"The first communication, it's not transparent," said Mark Moonesinghe, whose brother Rajan Moonesinghe was shot and killed by an officer in South Austin last November, after police saw Moonesinghe shooting into his own home.

"The press conference said that he was a white male. First, we thought my brother was still alive. And for five days, almost five days, we didn't know that he was actually dead," said Moonesinghe.

He says all Victim Services did was hand him a business card, and his questions about why the body cam video was so heavily edited went unanswered.

"Who decides what's released as part of those body cam videos? Because a good portion of the story of what happened to my brother was left out," said Moonesinghe.

Some Public Safety Commissioners are calling for a department-wide playbook, to better communicate with these families.

"It's just not acceptable that families aren't being hugged and rolled up with support," said Public Safety Commission chair Nelly Paulina Ramirez.

Austin police say they typically send a Victim Services counselor to the scene of officer-involved shootings, and police work to notify the family as soon as possible, though there are no set policies. 

Since 2021, it’s been department protocol to publicly release body cam video of officer-involved shootings within 10 days, though there are exceptions and that video is often edited.

"When that policy was put into place, we felt it was very important for family to be able to view the video prior to it going public," said Austin Police Victims Services Division Manager Kachina Clark.

Speaking to FOX 7 Tuesday night, Austin Interim Police Chief Robin Henderson sees room for improvement when it comes to how families are treated.

"We can definitely do a better job, but please understand it is standard practice to reach out to our Victim Services," said Henderson.

But Henderson says hard-and-fast protocols are tough, because each case is so different.

"There isn't a certain set of circumstances that are applicable across every situation that apply in the same sequence of time," said Henderson. "Just because each situation is unique."

Public Safety Commissioners say they do plan to hold a follow-up meeting to discuss this issue further, and hopefully come up with some specific recommendations.

A date for that has not yet been set.