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DA’s office to help buy body cams

Very good news.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.

In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.

A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.

[…]

Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”

“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.

“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”

Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”

Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.

“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”

Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.

You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.

Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.

“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.

Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.

One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.

“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.

Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.

“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”

Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.

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One Comment

  1. Steve Houston says:

    As an individual that has garnered a degree of expertise in these types of cameras of late, I am a big supporter of the concept of having police interactions recorded. This is largely because I believe regular recordings will prove time and again that in nearly every case, the police were justified in how they handled a situation, those handful of times the media portray as “every day occurrences” to increase ratings very uncommon.

    In terms of technological advances, it is difficult to keep up with everything happening in the industry, some companies focusing on making better gear while others focus on price, all of us becoming winners as a result. Some of the greatest leaps in tech stem from taking military versions and civilianizing them, kind of funny given the hand wringing over the militarization of police of late, but even HPD has found during their testing this year that promising gear is obsolete by the time testing is finished, something a few of us predicted over a year ago. In fact, the expensive cameras they largely liked are no longer available, not a bad thing given how units were literally glued together (prototypes often are assembled by hand), their batteries lasting less than half a shift even when brand new, the drop in power longevity discussed at length in their command staff reports.

    The good news is that the department has spent a great deal of time writing up their rules for camera use, even the idiot captain in charge of writing the rules up unable to screw this one up for lack of input. Community input was (and is) included too so by the time the final draft comes out, it should be a workable set of compromises everyone can live with. Those wanting the devices to automatically turn on whenever an officer is engaged on a call for service will be as unhappy as those who want the cameras on from the beginning of the shift until the end nonstop (no batteries on the market will comply with those specifications, nor are such activators available yet though it’s simple tech). The range is limited in terms of camera angle and night vision on them is lousy, don’t even bother if it’s raining, but it’s a step forward in making people more civil on both sides of the coin.

    The department’s command staff has sworn up and down that the devices will not be used on petty matters (“He cussed at me”), a betting pool already starting for how long it takes before that promise is tossed to the wind but the DA’s office has offered that this is the kind of recorded evidence needed to file charges on those who make false accusations against police so I suspect those frothing at the bit to get cameras will soon regret their demanding such. No matter what people involved with “Project Innocence” think, the cameras will work in favor of officers in almost all cases under proposed guidelines, no one truly believing “things would’ve been different in Ferguson” had the officer worn one; haters are going to hate, proof be damned (look at the robbery video that even with sworn testimony by the deceased’s cohort, people are denying it was the man killed by the officer beating up the store clerk).

    When car cameras were used in the cars of DWI units, convictions skyrocketed while complaints of misconduct fell off drastically. The same held true when HPD formed up a traffic squad with cameras 15 years ago, the devices and voice recorders worked so well that almost all of their complaints were handled in their own division, virtually all of them from citizens found to be false, rather than their IA. It’s tougher to convict an officer of assault or cussing when the only place the events happened were in the imagination of the complainer, this found time and again. If some idiot like Bill King or John Arnold wants to fund the remaining need for cameras in the region rather than run for an office they will never win or continue to poison the public on pensions, I have a list of departments that will issue them proclamations or give them more worthless awards for their mantles in gratitude.