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Public Safety urges APD to wait on body cameras

Tuesday, April 7, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The Public Safety Commission is urging the Austin Police Department to avoid making a hurried decision about when and how officers will wear body cameras. Commissioners said Monday they would consider adding a resolution on body cameras to next month’s agenda.

Police Chief Art Acevedo announced in November department plans to outfit its officers with cameras once available technology catches up to the officers’ needs — something, Acevedo said, he expected would happen over the next year.

At Monday’s meeting, Police Commander Ely Reyes said that while all of the department’s vehicles are now equipped with cameras, officers are still about 12 to 18 months from having cameras on them. Reyes said keeping officers equipped with body cameras for a five-year period would cost the department an estimated $9 million. The department still needs to identify this funding and plans to issue a request for proposal in the next few months.

Since November, Reyes said, the department has had time to pinpoint the technology it will require in whichever body cameras it chooses. Like the cameras mounted on their police vehicles, Reyes said they want their body cameras to turn on automatically if an officer exits his or her vehicle, turns on a siren or is involved in a crash.

“We don’t want the officer to have to worry about turning the camera on if they’re responding rapidly to an event,” he said. “If it’s not on, it could do more harm than good in developing trust and transparency in the community.”

Commission Chair Kim Rossmo said he anticipated these cameras would, in some cases, breach the public’s privacy, and that these concerns need to be resolved before officers are strapped with cameras.

“The criminal justice system has a horrendous record of coming up with solutions which create a brand-new set of problems that were never anticipated in the first place,” Rossmo said. “Given the sensitive nature of what a lot of police do, is there not some concern on reporting rates for crimes?”

Rossmo said the rate of crime reporting hovers around 20 percent, and these rates drop even lower for crimes like sexual assault and domestic violence. Therefore, he speculated, if city residents believe their interactions with the cops are being recorded — video evidence that could be obtained by anyone through an open records request — wouldn’t they be less inclined to report?

“I don’t want a reporter having a look inside my home because a police officer is taking a burglary report,” said Rossmo. “If you’re going to come into my home and record everything, maybe I just won’t call you.”

Assistant Police Chief Brian Manley said it was these concerns that had slowed his department’s decision on body cameras.

“That’s one of the reasons we haven’t moved forward with the project any quicker than we did, because we are taking a very measured approach,” Manley said. He added that some states in which police are already wearing cameras have had to grapple with privacy concerns on a policy level.

“We’re going to have the benefit at least of seeing how some of those early adopters address that issue,” said Manley.

Rossmo urged the APD to take as much time as it needed to make the decision. While he declined to make a formal resolution to present to City Council, he said he would consider one at his planning meeting next month with Manley.

“The only recommendation I have is to proceed very carefully, cautiously, with a lot of research,” Rossmo said, looking at the officers in the room. “Don’t rush into it, don’t feel pressured into making a decision.”


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