Police body-worn cameras… They’ve been the subject of much attention in recent months. Are you aware that the one-year anniversary of new Texas legislation on this very subject just passed? New Police Body Camera legislation went into effect in September 2015. The intent was to “seek to create statewide standards on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement and to provide a state solution to assist the procurement and operation of a body-worn camera program.”
Senate Bill 158, subsequently enacted in the Texas Occupations Code, established the following:
1. A new grant program for law enforcement agencies seeking to purchase body cameras.
2. Law enforcement agencies were required to establish policies governing body camera use by September 1, 2016. The policies must:
a. Ensure that cameras are used only for law enforcement purposes, contain guidelines for use, provide data retention practices, provide guidelines for public access, and set procedures for internal review.
b. Allow for an officer to review any recording involving that officer before he is required to make a statement about the incident.
c. Not require an officer to keep a body camera active during an entire shift.
3. Training must be provided to officers using cameras and to personnel handling recorded data.
4. Cameras may be de-activated during non-confrontational encounters.
5. An officer must document the reason for not activating a camera, if he failed to do so when responding to a call for assistance.
6. Justifications for not activating the camera must be based on what a reasonable officer would have done under the circumstances.
7. It is a misdemeanor for an officer or employee to release a recording without permission from the department.
8. Recordings depicting an incident involving deadly force or recordings related to an administrative or criminal investigation of an officer may not be erased or released to the public until all criminal or administrative matters have ended.
9. A law enforcement agency may elect to release recorded information to the public if it furthers a law enforcement purpose.
10. Detailed information must be contained in a Public Information Act request.
11. New, extended, timelines for responses to public information requests for body camera footage.
One important aspect is notably absent – use of police body cameras is not mandated.
It’s been a full year since the statutes were enacted, but we have yet to see any opinions released. We have seen new departmental policies though, and recently the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights conducted an objective “scorecard” analysis comparing police body camera policies across all major U.S. cities.1
Dallas faired moderately well in the analysis. High marks were received for providing clear criteria of when the camera must be activated. However, unfavorable marks were received for allowing officers to view footage before making their reports and also for lack of protections to prevent vulnerable individuals from being recorded. Dallas also received low marks for not having a process in place whereby individuals who are filing a complaint of police misconduct have access to footage of the incident in question and for having no requirement that officers must notify subjects that they are being recorded.
Dallas fared better under this analysis than other Texas cities, including Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. Houston scored slightly higher than Dallas, but only for having their policy easily accessible to the public. Nationwide, the highest scoring city was Chicago, which was commended for promoting public access to the policy, providing police officers with clear guidance on what situations must be recorded, requiring that officers provide notice to all individuals informing them that they are being recorded, and clearly providing victims with an option to opt out of being recorded.
With the new-ness of this all, it will be interesting to see where this new legislation (and departmental policies) takes us in the future.
1 Policy Scorecard from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, https://www.bwcscorecard.org/ (last accessed 09/13/2016).