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Police cameras

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.

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  1. Steve Houston says:

    I like the idea of the cameras and think that they will support the officer’s side of an encounter far, far more frequently than those of the people he deals with. I just think it’s funny that so many people who are opposed to having more cameras downtown or in public that are controlled by governmental bodies have no opposition to them. After all, these devices are not overly noticeable so “anything you say may and probably will be used against you” is going to become a bigger part of any interaction with police whether you like it or not.

    Otherwise, while experts feel that the city is already understaffed in terms of police officers to the tune of several thousand or more, which seems like a lot until you figure in that Houston is over 600 sq. miles and the numbers get divided by three shifts, this is going to make matters worse. Should every officer get one of these cameras there is going to be a need for them to have enough supervision to review the recordings which are in real time. Some stations have 5 or 6 officers to a sergeant while others effectively have three times that or more. Guess what will happen to the camera footage over time? Yeah, it will fall back on the “we only look at the footage when someone officially complains” due to lack of time on the part of supervisors that are already required to be in the field, fill out endless paperwork, and check by with their people. As such, it will become the next “feel good” program or worse, used as leverage against people who make otherwise innocent comments that are taken out of context.

  2. “we only look at the footage when someone officially complains”

    OTOH, when somebody complains, it will be helpful to have. It will also be frequently turned over to the defense as part of discovery so it may be prosecutors and defense counsel looking at it more often as sergeants, if Steve’s prediction pans out.

    On the difference between dash and body cams vs. public surveillance cameras, the evidence shows the public ones don’t reduce crime and are rarely used as evidence for the reason you cite (too much evidence, no one to monitor it). But if an officer is wearing a body cam during every arrest, you know it’s capturing each critical event and in a fashion that’s FAR more likely to be useful than public surveillance cameras.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    I like the automatic on cameras for cops, as well as the dash cams. How else would we know, for example, about the family in North Harris County that was brutalized by constables? That family’s complaints would have merely been he said, she said, and would have never seen the light of day. With the dash cam video, however, we got to SEE the assaults, even the kicking of the family dog. (Hopefully a jury will award that family some serious money, and another jury will be giving some of those cops some jail time to think about why assaulting, or standing around watching the assault of a whole family of law abiding people is wrong.)

    I do agree with Steven Houston, that most of the time, these videos will probably back the officers when a complaint surfaces. If I was a field officer, I’d definitely want one of those cameras, just to prove I’m doing the job correctly and being above board.

  4. Steve Houston says:

    And if they encourage the small minority of errant officers to mend their ways, all the better…

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