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Tuesday, March 29, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec
500 body cameras soon to be within APD’s reach
The Austin Police Department is inching closer to acquiring at least 500 body-worn cameras, but some close to the process told the Public Safety Committee on Monday that more public input should be sought.
The program is in accordance with a new state law that requires departments with body-worn cameras to adopt a policy that meets certain stipulations. Passage of the law also established a $10 million fund for state grants for those agencies that both have cameras and can obtain a local 25 percent match. APD Commander Ely Reyes said Monday that the department has been awarded a $750,000 state grant for the program’s second year.
It’s unclear, Reyes said, how much the cameras will cost this year. One feature that wasn’t required by state law but was “key,” Reyes said, is that the cameras will automatically turn on when an officer’s patrol car door opens. City Council Member Ora Houston asked Reyes whether a similar trigger could be implemented for officers on horseback or on foot. There wasn’t one, Reyes replied, but explained that cameras do have a pre-event recording function.
“Right now, we’re testing it to make sure the camera does what they said they will do,” Reyes said.
Should the trial go well, APD will seek Council approval for the contract in May and begin the contract in June, according to the city. Nelson Linder, president of the Austin branch of the NAACP, said the timeline is too slow.
“This is not rocket science,” he told the committee. “We’re taking way too long. How many debates are we going to have?”
Linder criticized the city’s “paralysis of analysis” on the subject and said Austinites need cameras on the streets now to “make it a safer city.”
Others involved in the process told Council members that more community input was needed, even though there was a well-attended community meeting on the subject and an online forum late last year.
APD has “very much underappreciated the degree to which the public wants to participate in this debate,” said Kathy Mitchell, an Electronic Frontier Foundation board member. “People have an untold number of questions.”
Matt Simpson with the ACLU of Texas asked members to stipulate policy on the release of footage, which he said “could be a great source of frustration.”
Reyes replied that most of the policy will be written in accordance with the new law, which stipulates that anyone requesting footage must ask for it by the date, time, location and name of at least one person involved. Also, the release of footage recorded in a “private space” such as someone’s home will be granted only if the owner OKs it.
“We as a community really need to be reassured that these videos will be released in a timely fashion,” Simpson said, adding that the footage “should be a vehicle for community trust.”
Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier echoed others’ calls for public involvement, saying, “Having the discussion as to who we’re going to outfit with these is a discussion for the community as a whole.”
She also urged Council members to look at the new state law carefully to identify potential improvements. The legislation was “hurriedly passed this last session,” Frasier said. “I expect there might be great change in that law” next session.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council Public Safety Committee: A City Council committee that reviews safety issues, including code enforcement, disaster preparedness and criminal justice.
Austin Police Department: the law enforcement entity for the City of Austin.
City of Austin Office of the Police Monitor: An oversight group that, among other duties, reviews citizen complaints filed against the Austin Police Department and monitors APD internal affairs investigations.