Clarification sought on release of police body camera videos in Texas

By Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Sept. 19, 2017

Trying to make sense of an emerging area of law, a state senator has asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to determine whether certain footage from police body cameras could be withheld — not just from the public, but from civilian supervisors of a law enforcement agency as well.

Specifically, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, wanted to know if state open record laws give a police chief or sheriff the discretion to withhold body camera footage if they determine that viewing the video could interfere with the “detection, investigation or prosecution of crime.”

Lucio’s request for an attorney general’s opinion, made public Tuesday, also asked whether a city manager, city council member or a civilian with police oversight has an “inherent right of access” to body camera footage as part of their official duties. And if such a right exists, Lucio asked, could police officials still withhold the footage if they believed its release could jeopardize an investigation or prosecution?

The concern, said Charley Wilkison, head of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, is over politicians or other officials who would seek to influence an investigation or inject themselves into a controversy involving police.

“That’s one where we’re always deeply concerned,” he said.

Like video taken from cameras mounted on a police cruiser’s dashboard, footage from body-worn cameras is prized for offering an objective look at interactions between officers and the public.

Questions about who should have access to body camera footage, however, are still being worked out, even as more police agencies adopt the technology — Austin, for example, recently announced that an additional 660 patrol officers will be fitted with cameras in the coming months.

Under state law, agencies that use body cameras must develop guidelines for public access to footage — if those making the request know the approximate time and exact place the recording was made, and can name at least one person in the video.

However, the Texas Public Information Act lets agencies withhold video if its release would jeopardize an investigation or prosecution — an exception that can delay release for months or years.

Video documenting deadly force by an officer, or showing events leading to an investigation of an officer’s conduct, also cannot be released to the public “until all criminal matters have been finally adjudicated” and all internal investigations are complete.

However, such videos can be made public if police officials determine that transparency “furthers a law enforcement purpose,” the law says.

Attorney general opinions are not binding but can help guide the policies of affected agencies.

But because Paxton’s office enforces open records laws, and determines what information can and cannot be withheld from the public, his opinion on the matter will be persuasive.

Paxton’s office has 180 days to issue a written opinion on the questions.