By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Jan. 7, 2015
The City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday continued deliberating whether to outfit police officers with body cameras and also made some headway on a new contract that will recast how towing companies handle wrecks on public streets.
The Police Department will likely outfit 251 police officers on downtown bike patrol and in the Park Police with small cameras worn on the uniform while other units will continue to use in-car video systems.
Police Chief Anthony Treviño told the committee that the department is ahead of the national curve because it had begun a body-cam pilot program in March — before their use became a national topic in the wake of a shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white officer shot an unarmed black teen last summer.
Following that incident, President Barack Obama called for increased usage of body cameras by the nation’s local police departments.
Local agencies face a conundrum with evolving technology, including issues related to battery life, storage capacity, policies for camera use and records retention.
City officials told the committee that the start-up cost for outfitting 251 officers would be about $101,000; support and licensing would cost $225,840 in the first year and $210,840 each year after.
Storing video would be about $25,000. The department would have to hire six new employees, including five to handle more complicated open-records requests.
In all, the city would spend about $2.8 million through Fiscal Year 2020, Treviño told the council committee.
Later this year, the council will have to decide whether to proceed — and if so, when. It could adopt a mid-year budget amendment to get cameras on cops quicker, or the council could wait until the fiscal year 2016 budget cycle, Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh told the committee.
Councilman Mike Gallagher said he harbors several concerns, including about what sorts of protections the electronic data would have.
“We’ve got to start looking at that, especially with the media interest in what we’ve got stored, and so forth, attorneys looking at it,” he said. “I think that could be quite problematic.”
Videos stored by the Police Department would be subject to public review under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city would likely be required to redact some elements of videos before being released, Treviño said. There’s an expectation from the public that the department acts in a transparent way, he said.
“I think transparency is a good thing,” Treviño said. “We shouldn’t be concerned about putting our actions in front of the light of day…Overall, we have an outstanding police department and our officers do a great job.”
The committee also gave a green light to city staff to proceed a plan to revamp San Antonio’s towing contract.
By December, there will likely be a single towing management company that will handle dispatching wreckers across the city. As it stands now, six sectors comprising the full city are handled by three towing companies. Under the towing management plan, other companies will be able to pick up more business and wrecks could be cleared from the roadways quicker. The city plans to release its request for proposals later this month and could award a contract by May.