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APD outlines body camera policy in forum

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Amid calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement across the nation, City Council has decided that the city should purchase body cameras for the Austin Police Department in the coming months. What that rollout and the policies that govern it will look like were the subject of a public meeting that the department held Monday evening at the Palmer Events Center.

Although APD currently deploys dashboard cameras in its vehicles and has policies for officers who purchase their own body cameras, it does not currently provide body cameras to its officers. However, the city budget, which Council approved in September, includes $3 million for the department to begin purchasing body cameras for a pilot program.

APD Commander Ely Reyes, who is helping develop the program, said that the department plans to deploy about 500 cameras by the end of September 2016 – the close of the current fiscal year – and hopes to start that process this summer. He said the department will release an online solicitation for contractor bids to purchase the cameras “in the next few weeks.”

“Our deployment strategy at this time is going to start in the downtown area at headquarters with the walking beat and the officers assigned to (the) Central West Command (area), which is in that same building,” said Reyes. He noted that priority will go to officers who travel on foot, on bicycles or on horses because, unlike officers in vehicles, they do not have dashboard cameras.

After the first two deployments, Reyes said, cameras will be distributed at the East Substation and continue from there. “It has to be facility-based because of the infrastructure and the requirements for uploading,” he said.

Responding to an audience question, APD Chief Art Acevedo said that he does not have plans to relocate any specific officers to the early deployment spots, but he may do so in the future. “If there’s an officer, a problematic officer that we need to transfer to a location to use that as a management tool, that is something we’d definitely consider,” he said.

Reyes said that, in drafting the body camera policy that is currently under review, the department “married” its dashboard camera policy with the provisions outlined in a new state law that went into effect in September. That law creates state guidelines for body camera programs as well as a statewide grant program to help local law enforcement buy cameras.

Officers with body cameras, Reyes said, are required to begin recording whenever they respond to calls for service or anticipate taking law enforcement action on a citizen, such as during a traffic stop. In cases where an officer must respond rapidly to a situation, he or she is expected to turn the camera on “as soon as practical.”

The department, Reyes said, hopes to have cameras with “pre-event recording” that can retroactively record for 30 seconds and sometimes up to two minutes more before an officer turns on a camera.

Reyes said that officers may not turn off their cameras until the relevant incident has concluded – all arrests have been made and arrestees have been transported to jail – or no further law enforcement action is likely to occur.

A list of frequently asked questions and answers posted to the department’s website states that officers will “typically” not record in places where “an expectation of privacy exists,” such as restrooms, “unless there’s reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed or the recording of the location is material to a criminal investigation.”

Reyes said that officers interviewing vulnerable victims, such as those who fear for their lives as a result of gang retaliation, can turn off their cameras to protect those individuals as long as they explain in their offense report why they did so.

Acevedo responded to a question about how officers are punished for failing to turn on their cameras. “When it comes to failure to have your in-car camera on, and a critical incident involving the use of deadly force occurs, it calls for an indefinite suspension, regardless of the propriety of the critical incident, and we’re going to adopt that same policy with the body-worn cameras,” Acevedo said. Punishment for other cases, he added, is “fact-specific.”

The list of frequently asked questions states that videos will be stored on “secure servers” – either local or cloud-based – that comply with federal Criminal Justice Information System standards, and officers will not be able to alter or delete the videos. The data will be kept for at least 90 days, with retention periods that escalate based on the severity of the incident.

Acevedo said that he hopes to remove as much human interaction as possible from the operation of the cameras by, for example, having automated triggers to begin recording when possible and having a streamlined uploading system, such as wireless transfers. “The less human interaction, the better,” he said.

Reyes said that members of the public can submit open records requests for body camera videos and that, according to state law, requests must include the date, time, location and name of at least one person in the recording. Those requesting videos made in private spaces such as homes need written permission from the individuals in the recordings.

It is a Class A misdemeanor, Reyes said, for an officer to release a video without authorization. Acevedo added that anyone convicted of a Class A misdemeanor on his or her record is ineligible to act as a police officer in the state.

Reyes explained that the auditing process for videos is conducted internally, although the police monitor can review any video that is related to an administrative complaint.

Acevedo responded to an audience member who was concerned about whether APD would release videos when it is required to. “We’re going to follow the law, and if we’re not following the law, then file a complaint or file a lawsuit. … We’re going to follow the law to the best of our ability,” said Acevedo.

Members of the Peaceful Streets Project distributed a flier at the meeting stating that body cameras are “worthless … unless the video is kept by an independent third party for the citizens” and “without severe sanctions for police shutting off cams or tampering with video.”

Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier, a former Travis County sheriff who heads a city office charged with holding the police department accountable, said that Acevedo has never denied a request from her office to view a dashboard camera video and encouraged members of the public to file complaints if they feel a police officer has misbehaved.

“Please don’t have some sort of fantasy belief that you can rely on audits to pick up misbehavior,” Frasier said.

Acevedo said that he hopes to have another community forum on the draft policy before it is finalized and that he will be prepared to present it to the Council Public Safety Committee and the city’s Public Safety Commission.

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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