Concerns raised about accessibility of police body cam footage

By St. John-Barned Smith
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Feb. 7, 2016

Months after statewide body camera legislation took effect and the Houston Police Department outlined its policies regarding the devices, local criminal justice watchdogs worry that some video from high-profile incidents may never see the light of day.

At issue, they say, are provisions in the law that could stymie requests for camera footage, privacy protections, and local departmental reluctance to release information.

When the Legislature passed SB 158 last year – easily in the House and with some opposition in the Senate – it was touted as a way to bring more transparency to law enforcement.

The legislation was enacted as police departments across Texas began weighing the use of body cameras and its intent was to set statewide policies for their use and establish a grant program for departments to defray costs.

But six months after it went into effect, civil liberties and open government activists are concerned that the law may make it harder for the public to obtain footage of controversial interactions between civilians and the police than it is to obtain other information under the Texas open records law.

Among the concerns, they argue is that the law gives police more time to decide whether to release the footage and it protects footage shot in a “private space,” such as a home. Also, people requesting it are required to provide the date and time and the name of at least one individual involved in the incident and it allows agencies to charge more for processing the release.

Kelley Shannon, with the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, called the new law “a good step in the right direction,” but pointed out that some of its provisions were more restrictive than the state’s policies regarding dash cam video.

“It might put up a hurdle that some people may not realize exists,” she said.

Kim Ogg, a Houston attorney and candidate for Harris County district attorney, who was among those addressing their concerns recently to the Houston City Council, said footage from the cameras may not be as accessible as people may think.

“The public believes the body cameras are going to provide them objective and independent evidence (of) police interaction with citizens and with each other,” she said at a news conference before the City Council meeting. “And it doesn’t look like … the digital recordings are going to be made public under this new law. It looks like they’re going to be less accessible than under the Open Records Act, and so it’s a step backwards, not a step forward.”

Video footage – whether from phones, security cameras or other sources – has become ubiquitous in recent years and has led to increased scrutiny of interactions between civilians and police in cases like the arrest of Sandra Bland, in Waller County, or the death of Eric Garner, in New York.

‘Going to be revisited’

Civil rights groups and police officers in Houston have both embraced the new technology: Reform advocates believe body cameras will expose bad officers, while department union officials said they will exonerate officers wrongly accused of misconduct.

Kelvin Bass, a legislative aide to Dallas Sen. Royce West, who authored the bill, said the legislator was aware of concerns about the law.

“It’s going to be revisited,” he said. “Sen. West has monitored public concerns regarding the availability of information recorded on body cameras to the public.”

Since the law’s enactment in September, the Texas Attorney General’s Office has allowed more than a dozen law enforcement agencies across the state to withhold videos, citing failures by the requesters to provide all necessary details.

The Houston Police Department has sought at least one exemption so far, according to a search of rulings from the Office of the Attorney General.

However, the department has not yet been confronted with a significant number of requests for footage from incidents in which the officers involved had actually been equipped with the devices, said Jeff Monk, with the department’s Open Records Division.

Monk said that when more officers are equipped with the devices, the department would likely have to seek additional guidance from the attorney general before releasing the footage.

“It’s actually kind of complex,” he said. “We’re going to have to take a look at every (request) and say, ‘OK, does this apply?’ It’s going to be a challenge at the beginning.”

Departments in Houston and Harris County had already begun moving to equip their officers with cameras when the law went into effect.

HPD plans to outfit about 4,100 of its officers with the devices at a cost of at least $3.4 million, starting with those in HPD’s Central Command. Currently, only about 100 officers in a pilot program are equipped with them. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has also begun equipping its deputies with cameras, as have smaller agencies around the region.

‘Rush’ to buy cameras

The rollout of Houston’s body camera initiative has come under criticism from some members of the City Council and the Houston Police Officers Union who have raised questions about which devices have been selected by the department, how the data will be stored, and its policies on releasing footage to the public.

The city is developing a policy requiring officers to record most interactions with civilians, with exceptions for situations like interviews with victims of sexual assault or responding to incidents at medical or psychiatric facilities. Non-evidentiary recordings are to be deleted after 90 days, according to the policy, and the department has been leaning toward storing the data on its own computers.

“We’re all a little frustrated,” said council member Brenda Stardig, head of the council’s ublic Safety Committee, describing a “rush” by former Mayor Annise Parker’s administration and HPD to procure body cameras without clarifying details about the department’s policies on their use and data storage.

“It just didn’t play out well,” said Stardig, who has called for storing the data in the “cloud” rather than on the department’s servers.

Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, credited the bill for laying the groundwork for uniform body camera policies across the state. But he said that exemptions based on privacy could allow law enforcement to withhold footage that the public deserves to see.

However, he noted, another part of the bill allows departments to release video if it serves a “law enforcement purpose.”

“There’s discretion in both directions,” he said. “There’s discretion both to refuse to release a lot of this video, but … there’s also some discretion to release more video than people are acknowledging. At that point, it comes down to local practice.”