City commission: State law on body cameras raises privacy questions

By Nicole Chavez
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Nov. 3, 2015

As the Austin Police Department continues to prepare the launch of its body-worn camera program, the city’s Public Safety Commission is worried state law may not provide enough guidance on how to protect victims’ privacy.

The law, which was discussed during the commission’s meeting Monday, includes several rules addressing the release of any recordings to the public: It says that footage recorded in a private space, such a home or a business, should only be made public with the consent of those who showed in the video. It also requires anyone seeking video footage to submit the date and time of recording, location and the name of one or more persons who appear in the recording.

Austin police Cmdr. Ely Reyes told the commission he believes the legislators did a good addressing privacy concerns, but Commission Chair Kim Rossmo disagreed.

Rosmo said body cameras could represent s a potential risk for sexual assault victims who interact with police. If they report a crime in a public place while a body camera is recording, the video could be released to anyone.

“I would guarantee that in the next years something will fall into the cracks,” Rossmo said. “We will see video in YouTube.”

He said the law does not include any specific rules regarding sexual assault, domestic violence or child abuse victims. It could affect the reporting rates, which are already low, Rossmo said.

To address this issue, some police departments in California, Arizona and Colorado have given officers discretion to decide whether they will record interviews with victims of sexual assault, abuse or other sensitive crimes. Some even require officers to ask crime victims for permission to record interviews, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of community-oriented policing services and the Police Executive Research Forum.

On Monday, the commissioners also said that state law does not provide enough guidance regarding the retention policy for body camera videos. While the state law requires agencies to save footage for at least 90 days if it’s not considered evidence of a crime, it doesn’t provide guidelines for the maximum time.

Besides sharing their concerns over privacy with the City Council, the commission will also suggest they perform a full evaluation of the body cameras program in the future.