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Committee wants more specifics from police on body cameras

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 by Jack Craver

Activists and members of the City Council Public Safety Committee made clear Monday that they want greater assurances from the Austin Police Department that the body cameras the department plans to implement will bring about transparency and accountability.

In particular, the four committee members emphasized their hope that the department would develop a clear set of policies for releasing body camera footage in response to inquiries from the public.

The police department recently implemented a pilot program that aims to equip 500 officers with body cameras this year using the $3 million Council earmarked in last year’s budget. The plan, as expressed by Council, is to have all officers wearing the devices within the next three years. At its next meeting on June 9, Council will vote on whether to approve a 60-month, $9 million contract with Taser International, the company known for the popular stun guns, to provide more body cameras.

The committee approved a resolution proposed by Council Member Greg Casar that asks the department to meet with community stakeholders in the next four months to discuss the policy that the department recently unveiled, as well as take suggestions on potential modifications. Council members Don Zimmerman and Leslie Pool joined Casar in supporting the resolution; Council Member Ora Houston was at the meeting but was absent for the vote.

The resolution, which Council will also take up at its next meeting, does not specify how many meetings the department should undertake but demands that a report of the community feedback be delivered to Council.

“My goal is to really clarify what our procedures are going to be around release (of video), especially if there is a citizen complaint or an officer-involved shooting,” Casar told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday. “I don’t want to put us in a situation where a body camera purchase harms public trust instead of helps it.”

The resolution followed a presentation by Police Department Technology Commander Ely Reyes, who explained that the city’s policies would be limited to a certain degree by existing state law.

A bill on body cameras signed into law last year by Gov. Greg Abbott requires any citizen seeking footage to submit a request to the police that includes the date and approximate time of the recording, the location of the incident and the name of at least one person involved in the recording.

In addition, the law prohibits police departments from releasing footage that was taken “in a private space” or of an incident that is an investigation of an offense that is only punishable by fine and does not lead to arrest.

In its own five-page policy on body cameras, the APD only addresses the issue of releasing footage by saying it will “comply with all applicable laws” and that media requests for footage will be processed through the Public Information Office.

Reyes further stated that the department will not release footage pertaining to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The policy outlines the situations in which officers will be expected to turn on their body cameras. Cops will be required to activate their cameras upon arriving at a scene in response to a call for service or when they find themselves in a situation in which they are attempting to detain or arrest a person or are likely to do so.

Examples of such interactions given by the department include traffic stops, foot pursuits of suspects, DWI investigations, warrant services and any interaction that “becomes adversarial.”

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, urged the committee to demand specifics from the police on how they plan to deal with requests for video footage.

“The public deserves to know in detail when they can expect a video to be released,” he said.

In an interview with the Monitor the next day, Simpson, who was involved in crafting the state body camera law, said that the law is too vague on when and how video should be released.

“Just saying ‘look at the law’ is not sufficient,” he said about the police department’s policy.

Simpson suggested that the department include a box on every ticket that the person being ticketed could check in order to authorize public release of the video. That would expedite release if it is requested and would also send a clear message to the public, he said, that the police department is fully committed to transparency.

Other activists similarly asked for more concrete guidelines as well as for greater input from the community on the policy.

“What I see is a one-sided policy,” said Fatima Mann of the Austin Justice Coalition. She pointed out that there was no mention of the Citizen Review Panel playing a role in reviewing video.

Antonio Buehler, the founder of the Peaceful Streets Project, said Council should not approve funding for more body cameras until the department develops a policy that he said should be geared toward “the rights of the people.”

Without clear rules in place, he continued, the police can pick and choose what to release to fit their narrative.

Buehler concluded, “Body cams are for the police to use against the people.”

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