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We need to know how body cameras are going to be used

Having the body cameras is great, but it’s how we use them that really matters.

Harris County’s two largest police agencies are testing body cameras on officers but refuse to release their policies detailing when the cameras should be turned on and off to maximize accountability and minimize intrusiveness.

The Houston Police Department spent $108,000 to buy 100 VIEVU body cameras in May 2013 and began testing them later that year. The pager-sized cameras are worn on the front of an officer’s uniform.

In the months since, HPD has balked at releasing anything but anecdotal information about the results of its pilot project.

In September, the Houston Chronicle filed an open records request asking HPD for its report on the test, a copy of the policy that governed the camera test and copies of videos from the first month in cases that had a final disposition or figured in the outcome of a citizen’s complaint against an HPD officer.

Earlier this week, HPD released edited videos of six encounters its officers had with citizens, including traffic stops, a domestic dispute, a foot chase and a nighttime incident in which the officer drew his gun and yelled commands to arrest a suspect without incident.

However, HPD now claims it did not know what report the Chronicle was referring to. It has asked the Texas attorney general to allow it to withhold the results because comments made by officers evaluating the equipment could endanger the process of purchasing additional cameras.

HPD also has asked the attorney general to allow it to withhold the camera test policy.

[…]

Sheriff Adrian Garcia also has declined to release his agency’s test policy, claiming the same exemption.

“Right now, we are not sharing the pilot project policy because it’s not the final policy,” said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs.

See here for some background. I get that HPD and the Sheriff’s office are still in testing mode and don’t want to feel like they’re committing to anything until they’re ready, but other agencies like the HISD police have released their test policies, and if they can do it others can as well. More to the point, the cameras are about transparency and building trust with the public. This would be a good place to start. Let’s get on with it.

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One Comment

  1. Steven Houston says:

    “It has asked the Texas attorney general to allow it to withhold the results because comments made by officers evaluating the equipment could endanger the process of purchasing additional cameras.”

    Translation: “We don’t trust any of you with the information because you will see the primary focus of the cameras will be to secure convictions of those we encounter while we keep selling the big price tag as using the cameras to make police more accountable.” If the Mayor and Council knew how poorly the cameras fared in anything but crystal clear, sunny days, they might find better uses for the millions of dollars this program will cost, not just up front but in maintenance costs as well.

    I know my previous suggestion about releasing virtually everything is about as popular with HPD/HCSO as pension cuts or civilian review boards would be but frankly, without community input, the bulk of reasons why people support the cameras may be lost to expediency and cost cutting measures. I think both policing agencies know what the public truly wants from the cameras and I think they are the best to prepare a set of core policies to address law enforcement expectations of the equipment. That doesn’t mean they are the only stakeholder in the matter or the only ones with concerns.

    Consider this, in any public program requiring substantial funds be spent, do any of you out there honestly believe that the people most impacted by said program are the only ones with something of value to contribute? Anyone that thinks that should resign. I think an internally generated policy will likely cover the bulk of issues they have but wouldn’t it make sense to have a Kuffner (citizen activist without a grudge to bear) and someone like Paul Kubosh (a defense attorney popular with many rank and file officers as well as defendants) putting in their two cents?

    I can understand the apprehension over how the clueless will react upon hearing officers curse or get extremely aggressive in a dangerous situation. That’s policing 101 and as much as the hand wringers long for a day when all police are perfectly sanitized (ala “Demolition Man”) to the point of ineffectiveness, it’s not going to change in the near future. Those who’ve been around the block know that once a policy is set in stone, changing it for the better is incredibly difficult (the departments know it too) so best get on board now.