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Body camera policies to be scrutinized

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 by Jo Clifton

After the City Council Public Safety Committee heard from five people well versed on issues surrounding police body cameras, committee Chair Don Zimmerman asked Kim Rossmo, chair of the citizens group charged with vetting public safety issues, to get more public input and help develop policies for using those cameras.

Everyone on the panel seemed enthusiastic about Austin police officers getting body cameras, including Detective Ken Cassady, president of the Austin Police Association; Police Monitor Margo Frasier; Nelson Linder, president of the NAACP; and Ely Reyes, who leads APD’s technology division.

When Council worked on the budget earlier this month, it set aside $3 million for body cameras. And after attending a convention of police chiefs in October, which will include demonstrations of various kinds of cameras, the Austin Police Department camera team will be ready to craft a request for proposals.

Every member of the panel agreed that the cameras must be automatically turned on. “If it is a 911 call, it needs to be recorded,” said Cassady. He pointed out that the city and its police union will be negotiating a contract 18 months from now and that issues concerning the body cameras –– including automatic activation –– can be expected to be a part of that negotiation.

But Cassady was enthusiastic about the cameras, saying that the dashboard cameras officers have in their cars have been instrumental in reducing the number of complaints from citizens as well as reducing the number of “sustained findings” concerning police misconduct. Frasier agreed that if there is a 911 call, there should be no question about the camera being on.

Zimmerman and Council Member Ora Houston both expressed concern that the RFP proposal might be out of sync with policies regarding the cameras. And Frasier said she had gone to her first meeting of the task force on body cameras last week. “What became very apparent to me was the policy needs to be developed not in APD’s own silo,” she said.

Frasier and Rossmo also brought up privacy issues. For example, what if a witness says he doesn’t want to be recorded? There was a lengthy discussion about this, with Rossmo saying that the Open Records Act might present some challenges because witnesses might not feel safe if their statements are available to anyone who asks for them.

Reyes then said that the State Legislature did a good job in the 2015 session of crafting legislation that would prevent videos from becoming public so that witnesses need not fear videos ending up in the wrong hands.

And Reyes said there are technical solutions to some privacy questions. For example, he said, “Some vendors have built-in redaction of faces.” He added, “I’m glad we didn’t jump into this too soon. Having the in-car cameras is going to make it easier. Now our plan is to develop policy. The car camera is a good model.”

Zimmerman said the Council needs to look at APD’s current policies regarding car cameras. Houston said she wants to make sure that the public feels included in developing policies regarding the cameras.

Linder said, “Cameras benefit everybody. We have everything to gain.” He complained that getting the cameras was taking too long. “It’s time for the city to be the best department it can be.” Having the cameras, he said, “calms a lot nerves.”

Photo by Matty Ring [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. 

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