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Public Safety Commissioners ask city to go slow on body cameras

Tuesday, May 5, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The Public Safety Commission approved a draft recommendation Monday urging city staff to proceed carefully before equipping Austin police officers with body cameras.

The commission’s recommendations were fourfold: consider any research analyzing the effects of body cameras on police work; devise a privacy policy to protect more sensitive cases such as sexual assault or child abuse; consider technology that automatically triggers a body camera when officers step out of their vehicles; and determine the full cost of buying and implementing this new technology, ensuring that these costs are auxiliary to the department’s normal operating budget.

“We are not against the idea of body cameras worn by police, but there are a number of issues and complications,” said Chair Kim Rossmo. “We’ve decided it was wise for (City) Council to proceed very carefully and not just in reaction to current events or special interest groups that are demanding cameras be implemented immediately.”

The recommendation passed Monday, drafted by Rossmo, Jennifer Heatley of the Austin Fire Department and Chief Brian Manley of the Austin Police Department.

It met opposition only from Commissioner Rebecca Webber. Webber told the Austin Monitor that while she supported the recommendation, it felt like an affront to a recommendation passed last week by Council’s Public Safety Committee. Commissioner Sam Holt was absent.

“I didn’t like the sentiment behind it, which was the Council committee made a mistake,” Webber said after the meeting. “They heard extensive testimony from every stakeholder. It seemed like all voices were heard, as opposed to at our committee, where we mostly hear from the police department.”

Though the Public Safety Committee last week heard from APD, the group also listened to representatives from local chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU. These organizations expressed wide support for outfitting local police officers with body cameras.

At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Mike Levy made a point to stress Rossmo’s background and his qualifications for drafting this recommendation for a cautious go-ahead.

“The chair happens to be a retired inspector with the Vancouver Police Department,” said Levy. “The chair is currently a tenured professor in San Marcos in the area of criminology and brings a lot to this issue that other people in the decision-making process simply do not have.”

Rossmo emphasized that this recommendation was not meant to be a soft refusal of body cameras. He said that putting a camera on an officer’s body was not a simple fix for what current events have painted as an ill enforcement of the law.

“It’s not (that) we’re saying this is a bad idea,” said Rossmo. “But we’re saying like many solutions in criminal justice, it probably doesn’t do what people think it would do.”

The deaths of young black men by or while in custody of police officers, including the recent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore that continues to spark protests in the city, has led many to focus on the potential power of body cameras to extract a more accurate account of events — a job often left to the unreliable memories of witnesses, victims and shooters.


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