Caption: Map made by Vocativ on the levels of body camera implementation in different states. Body Cams in Texas October 2015
In places like office buildings and retail stores, security cameras are there for the safety of employees as well as anyone else that may enter the building. That theory is now being implemented in the form of body cameras on police in an effort to ensure the safety of individuals in an encounter with law enforcement. Texas recently passed a law that would require body cameras to be used all over the state.
The 84th legislature passed a bill, authored by Royce West (D. Dallas), funding the implementation of body cams this year. The bill went into effect Sept. 1 with certain provisions regarding implementation and training programs for the cameras saved until 2016. Legislative aide to Sen. West, Kelvin Bass said the bill is one of the most comprehensive in the US so far.
“Some states might have just provided funds and some states just did the policy. Nobody’s legislation that we saw, when we were working on it this year, went as far as the Texas legislation did,” Bass said.
In fact, out of the top 100 most populous cities in the US, only 41 have body cameras in use on some officers. This means that Texas is the only one to give options for all officers to eventually have body cameras funded by the state. Legislators hope that the new law will help provide resources to law enforcement as well as peace of mind to citizens when an officer is the only witness to an event.
“Senator West thought that just an extension, another tool for law enforcement to give the public just another view of what actually happened when these interactions between these police and citizens. Prior to that, whatever was reported by law enforcement was taken as unquestioned. But now with citizen data and their use of their own footage with the cell phones and so forth it brought about a different dynamic with law enforcement and the state.” Bass said.
The law put aside $10 million for the cameras but still requires police departments to cover 25 percent of the cost. Cities will be forming grant programs through October that will assist departments in the cost of data storage, contracts with data services and the cameras themselves. Houston, Dallas and Austin are the three largest police forces in Texas with Houston having over 5,000 sworn officers in 2012. So far, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio already have body cameras in place, while Austin lags behind with plans for implementation.
Travis County Sheriff’s Department is one of the areas in Texas that will be complying with the law but not taking any grant money from the state. Senior Public Information Officer, Roger Wade said that the decision was made through the county commissioners office. “We looked at the code and what was required to get the funds and a decision was made by the sheriff’s office and the commissioners court to not even apply for the grant funds. So now we’re looking at other ways to get the funds to supply body cameras. We do realize the benefit of them and we getting them, it’s how fast we get them and the policies we will use are still to be decided,” said Wade.
Officials and police departments are concerned about the cost, privacy and personnel needed to manage all of the video. A report done by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), with support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, conducted research on the use of body-worn cameras. PERF is a non-profit that does independent research related to police conduct as well as supply resources.
On their website the mission includes providing “management services, technical assistance, and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies to improve the delivery of police services through the exercise of strong national leadership.” How much of the video would be available during an open records request, how video will be stored and for how long are among the biggest issues. The bill requires that footage be retained for a minimum of 90 days, unless required as a piece of evidence, and sets out guidelines on what kinds of policies need to be in place for each law enforcement office to receive grant money from the state.
While the law is still in the beginning phases, activist organizations in Austin are anxious about police excessively using force in the first place, which resulted in over 20 civilian deaths in Texas this year. Black Lives Matter Austin organized a rally at the state Capitol in opposition to the number of deaths caused by police brutality on Sept. 19.The Facebook event page projected 1,400 people in attendance, with people coming from as far as Dallas and San Antonio.
The focus of the rally was on the need for reforms in the police department, and anything less wouldn’t fix the issue of police violence. On the other side of the building was a Police Lives Matter rally with the argument that police are the ones in the line of danger and reforms to police practices are not needed. Recent studies in 2015 have proven that this might be the safest year in history for law enforcement compared to the 700 people killed during encounters with police as reported by the Washington Post in September.
UT Austin sophomore, Sonia Uthuph, a member of UT’s chapter of Amnesty International, said she feels like many of the problems with police violence are rooted in how law enforcement is trained. “We should make being a police officer a prestigious institution rather than [a back-up plan]. I think it should be something prestigious that you have to have good grades for and I think part of the academy should be human rights training and experience of minorities and people that don’t speak English —just more exposure for police officers,” said Utheph.
Until clear legislation can be made regarding police training The Austin Justice Coalition, a grassroots organization focused on criminal justice reform, includes the implementation of body cams as one of its three goals. The other two include a citizens review panel of police action and accountability of elected officials. According to their website, the goal of the campaign is “to work with Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council to ensure that regardless of what happens at the Capitol of the next few months that the City of Austin will still be proactive in combating police brutality by implementing a body camera ordinance.”
Grassroots organizations, as well as the general public, are split on how much the cameras will help. In July 2014 there was the case of Eric Garner that had a cell phone video showing how an encounter with a police officer resulted in his death. Even though there was evidence, the officer involved was not charged with anything. Mukund Rathi, a UT Austin student active in multiple activist organizations that align with the Black Lives Matter movement, said he believes that body cameras are useless until there are reforms in the police and justice systems.
“We know that cops can kill people on video and not even be indicted [like the Eric Garner case], so clearly they have judicial power —evidence only matters if the courts are fair,” Rathi said. In 2013 there were almost 500 cases of “justifiable homicides” by police according to a BBC investigation done this year. In the six years leading to the report only 41 officers had been charged with manslaughter or murder. The report was done after the death of a man in Texas after he allegedly stole from a store. The officer said that he had been attacked, but the forensic evidence claimed that the man had been shot in the back of the head.
A study done by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2014 included interviews with police executives and a survey of 500 law enforcement agencies concerning policy and practices related to the use of the cameras. On the level of community members, the cameras have shown to help in accountability and transparency of police actions. The study included suggestions for law enforcement on the types of training and policy that would be most beneficial when implementing the use of cameras.
“By implementing a body-worn camera program, agencies are demonstrating that they are committed to transparency and accountability, and their disclosure policies should reflect this commitment.” the PERF study read. For police, cameras can assist in training, evidence and assisting in resolving complaints. Thinking that body cameras will be a golden ticket to community trust won’t help solve crimes. Travis County believes that the main use would be for evidence.
“Body Cameras are nothing more than another tool to provide evidence in a criminal investigation. So, dependency of cameras automatically making everything ok if there are issues in the community, I don’t think that’s the case. I think, if you use body cameras for any other reason other than a tool to help you fight crime you’re going down the wrong road. ” Wade said.
How each municipality will utilize the new body cameras will be seen as the policy rolls out. If the laws work for Texas it is hopeful that more states will take on the full scope of policy and implementation of the cameras.