It’s disappointing that Houston lags behind other cities in using dashboard cameras in police cars, but I am glad to see we are trying to catch up.
Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws.
Just 5 percent of the Houston Police Department’s fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles feature dashboard cameras, compared to the Dallas Police Department’s 55 percent, the highest of the six largest law enforcement agencies in the state.
A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.
HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers’ uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD’s dashboard cameras.
Policing experts say cameras – mounted in cars or uniforms – are critical to public confidence in law enforcement.
“They are absolutely a benefit. They tell a story,” said professor Geoffrey Alpert, who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina and is a national expert on policing. “If you have a suspect saying one thing, and the officer another thing, and if you don’t have an electronic witness, you don’t know who’s telling the truth.”
Alpert said research has found that dash cameras support the officer’s account 90 percent of the time, although he notes they are expensive for cities to purchase and operate.
Austin police have installed digital cameras in 38 percent of the department’s 1,335 vehicles. Other agencies with more dash cameras than HPD include Fort Worth, El Paso, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. The Dallas Police Department, the state’s second largest police agency with 3,500 officers, has installed dashboard camera systems in 960 of its 1,757 vehicles, according to an open records request.
There’s really no good argument against having these cameras. They cost money, sure, but they’re a great investment because they provide an indisputably objective account of what happened when police interact with civilians. The case for dashboard cams is the same as the case for recording interrogations, though for reasons I’ve never quite understood there’s more resistance to the latter. I am curious about the proposed use of officer cams instead of dashboard cams, mostly because the officer cams – uniform cams? – are new and don’t have a record of use that we can examine like the dashboard cams do. I can see how the officer cams might provide a better view than static dashboard cams, but I can also imagine a scenario where an officer that might want to obscure what he’s doing could facilitate that by the way he positions himself or angles his body. It’s important to make sure the cams can’t be interfered with.
It’s also important to make sure the operation of the cams is not optional or at the discretion of the officers involved.
Fort Worth police have equipped about one-quarter of their 1,227 vehicles with dashboard cameras. Police union officials there say the biggest problem is officers who forget to turn the cameras on.
“Here’s the deal. If it saves you on one multimillion dollar lawsuit, it would be worth it,” said Sgt. Stephen Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.
McClelland, the HPD chief, said the 100 body cameras to be used in a pilot program – including hardware, software and digital storage – costs $2,500 each.
Equipping all 3,000 HPD officers who are first responders would be a significant investment, McClelland said. Using the figures provided by the chief, the cost would be about $7.5 million.
He said anecdotal reports from other departments indicate body cameras have resulted in fewer complaints against officers, along with more convictions in criminal courts.
McClelland said the new technology will also offer “a measure of protection for our police officers against false allegations” and defense in civil litigation.
“This just allows us to have our own video, without being edited by the public or someone’s cellphone video they want to chop up and only show bits of pieces, only the bad parts that they think where maybe it makes the officer look bad and makes them look good,” McClelland said.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, said the cameras must be turned on and off by the officer, who in many situations will instead focus on making an arrest.
“We’re not scared of what the cameras are going to capture, we are fearful that an officer is going to fail to turn it on at a very quickly evolving scene and people are automatically going to think that officer is trying to hide something,” Hunt said.
Which is why it shouldn’t be up to the officers to remember to turn them on. They should either be always on or automatically activated whenever an officer exits the police vehicle. People will have confidence in them only if they know they will always be able to review the video. The first time video isn’t available when there’s been a confrontation between an officer and a civilian, people will have questions. The second time it happens, people will have doubts. If we want this to work and get the maximum benefit from these cameras, they have to be always on when we need them. If they’re not designed that way, they’re not ready to be used. Grits, who is a fan of the officer cams, has more.