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Police monitor talks body cameras on task force

Monday, November 30, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

As the Austin Police Department prepares to roll out a body camera pilot program in the coming months, city Police Monitor Margo Frasier and law enforcement experts from across the nation are tackling the ethical and legal questions that come along with the technology.

Frasier, a former Travis County sheriff who heads a city office created to hold the APD and its officers accountable, told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday that the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Law Enforcement Body Camera met in September in Washington, D.C., where members took on a “packed agenda,” identified major issues and formed committees.

The task force is charged with drafting policy guidelines related to ethical questions such as when the cameras should be turned on; how much autonomy, if any, police officers should have in turning the cameras off; whether crime victims should have to give consent to be filmed; how long data should be stored and how accessible certain videos should be to the public.

The committees, Frasier said, will meet and communicate regularly on specific topics, in many cases virtually, until the next meeting, likely to take place in March.

Frasier said that she serves on two committees, both of which have been active. One considers how to ensure that police departments obtain community input on body camera policies while the other focuses on search and seizure issues related to body cameras.

“I firmly believe that you have better government, period, if you make sure the government is meeting the desires and needs of the community,” Frasier said on the former topic. “We need to understand from the community what it is that they want, what they expect to see, what their concerns are and what concerns they think will be addressed by the body cameras.”

The APD will hold a community meeting on body cameras today at 6:30 p.m. at the Palmer Events Center, where law enforcement officials will discuss new state legislation, release information on its proposed policies and answer audience questions.

“I would hope that the police department is coming to the meeting not just to give information, but also to get information so that they can hear what the concerns are of the public and make sure that that is included in the policy or be able to explain why not,” said Frasier.

City Council approved $3 million in spending for a body camera pilot program when it approved the current city budget in September. While APD Commander Ely Reyes said recently that he wants to deploy some body cameras by this summer, that process cannot move forward until the department releases a request for contract bids online, which has not yet occurred.

There are some officers who currently wear body cameras under an optional program, but those officers have provided their own cameras.

The Texas Legislature passed legislation related to body cameras in May that was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June and went into effect in September. The law sets state guidelines for deploying body cameras and creates a statewide grant program that involves federal funds to help law enforcement agencies set up their own body camera programs.

The city’s Public Safety Commission, after learning that Texas law requires police to obtain written permission from individuals in videos taken on private property before releasing those videos publicly, passed two resolutions on Nov. 2 raising concerns about body cameras.

The commission wrote that it “has concern over the fact that the state law does not speak to maximum retention periods” for videos and that it “believes current Texas privacy laws are inadequate for proper protection of victims of sensitive crimes (e.g. sexual assault, domestic assault, child abuse) when police-victim interactions occur in a public area, such as a street.”

The search and seizure committee on which Frasier serves is formulating procedural recommendations for filming in people’s homes that don’t infringe on their constitutional rights.

“One of the very lively discussions at our committee meeting was the point of when (does an officer) have to say to somebody … ‘Knock, knock, can I come in? By the way I’m filming here,’ and whether or not you have to tell the person that (you are filming)?” Frasier said.

“More critically, if the person says, ‘Are you filming me?’ I think that the recommendation of the committee would be that the officer shouldn’t be allowed to be untruthful about it,” Frasier continued. “The biggest question of all becomes if the person says, ‘I don’t want you to film me,’ whose interest trumps there? I think that there’s certainly more discussion to be had.”

Although the task force will not present a preliminary set of findings to the American Bar Association until August 2016, Frasier said she is a strong proponent of body cameras.

“I think it does change the officer’s behavior sometimes, sadly – I would hope it wouldn’t change it a bit – I think it changes the citizen’s or the community’s behavior sometimes towards the officers, … and I think it will help the public at large hopefully understand what happens in some circumstances,” Frasier said. “But it won’t be an end-all.”

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