May 19, 2015
Debate over the necessity of police-worn body cameras across the United States has raged for several years now. The practice has become increasingly common among local police departments now, especially compared with a couple years ago when just a couple of departments pioneered pilot programs to see if they truly made a difference in officer and civilian behavior, complaints against the department, and more. Overwhelmingly, the results have been positive, with reports of officer use of force down double digit percentages and higher satisfaction with the department amongst citizens in their jurisdictions.
Now, the state of Texas is looking at bringing the program to its own departments, though only on a voluntary basis. In a state that favors county and municipal autonomy, this method of introduction is not surprising, and is likely to remain the structure of body camera programs in the state for some time if a recent bill is passed into law. The senate has already passed Bill 158, sponsored by democratic Senator Royce West of Dallas, which would outline program guidelines for departments with body cameras in operation.
The bill does not require all police departments to have a body camera policy in place, but it does require certain policies to be in place at departments that decide to opt in to the voluntary use of cameras. The bill, sponsors say, is an attempt at injecting some statewide uniformity into the process of how body cameras are utilized and how their recordings are stored and shared. Other bills are already up for debate and voting in the House, which will now have the option to amend and enact Bill 158.
In Texas, several departments either already use body cameras or are testing them out, including Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Of course, one of the reasons that all departments don’t have cameras yet is a factor that always crops up in body camera debates: the cost. The purchasing and fitting of actual cameras is only the tip of the iceberg, and the costs associated with backing up and storing the recordings – which can be massive in size – is a major barrier, especially for smaller departments.
Currently, West is hoping that, should the bill pass, he can secure a $10 million grant that would go toward helping the departments purchase and setup their systems. After the grant runs out, however, West admits that they couldn’t realistically expect to keep the program running unless more money was secured.
A recent amendment, by Senator Jose Menendez (D) of San Antonio, introduced some limitations on how far public records requests could reach into the recordings. Among these were exceptions for cases in which an officer was off duty or “during activities not meant to be recorded.” While the personal privacy of offers should be respected off duty, the vagueness of the language about activities not meant to be recorded is cause for concern for some, who fear it may give departments the ability to classify legitimate and relevant footage as out of reach for the public.