Texas lawmakers propose body cam policies for police

(AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)
Body camera (AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The most talked about new tool in law enforcement – the body-worn camera – has prompted Texas lawmakers to file bills for the upcoming legislative session aimed at managing how the state’s police agencies use the cameras and store the information they record. Law enforcement watchdogs around the nation turned up the volume on calls for body cameras after the shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri. The officer was later cleared by a grand jury.

A bill filed in Texas by Rep. Eric Johnson and its Senate companion put forth by Sen. Royce West would allow for police agencies to apply for grants to supply active highway patrol and other patrol officers with the small cameras that can be worn on an officer’s chest or shoulder. The bill would also mandate departments adopt policies that establish guidelines for when an officer should activate the body camera, as well as rules or holding onto and storing recordings.

The federal Justice Department Community Policing program earlier this fall published recommended best practices for body cameras.

A number of smaller Texas police agencies are using the devices with varying degrees of policies in place, and Austin police executives are also currently sifting through information packets requested this month from various body cam manufacturers. The hope is to have a vendor selected and Austin police officers wearing them within a year.

The new Texas House Bill calls for officers to have access to video of any incident they are involved with. It also forbids officers from wearing personal body cameras. Right now, the Austin Police Department allows officers to wear their own cameras.

Johnson’s bill also speaks to the creation of a training curriculum to be developed and implemented by January 2016. Members of state law enforcement academic and professional institutions would be enlisted to help accomplish that task, the bill’s author recommends. The bill still has to make its way through the full legislative process when lawmakers sit down in January.

A second, similar bill filed by Rep. Ron Reynolds spells out provisions for police agencies which cannot afford body cameras and adds specific guidelines about an officer giving verbal notice to the person being recorded. There is also language mandating the destruction within 180 days of recordings that are not required as evidence in a criminal investigation or a serious officer-involved incident. Reynolds’ bill also calls for body camera video to be considered public information subject to Texas open records laws.

This week, Governor-elect Greg Abbott called the bills a ‘step in the right direction.’ Recently, President Barack Obama announced a $263M plan to equip 50,000 peace officers around the US with body-worn cameras.

On Friday Houston-area law enforcement officials, along with community and religious leaders, praised a nearly $2 million donation by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office to purchase body cameras for officers, the Associated Press reported.

The Houston Police Department will receive $1 million while the Harris County Sheriff’s Office will get $900,000 to outfit officers.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said the donation was prompted after she attended a recent town hall meeting about improving relations between police and the community in the wake of recent grand jury decisions in the officer-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. At the meeting, many residents asked that officers wear body cameras.

“Across the country, citizens are asking for this technology and the officers I’ve spoken with are more than willing to wear it,” Anderson said. “Funding is an issue. Because we are all in this together, our office has decided to help with this problem.”

The money will be coming from civil forfeiture funds collected by Anderson’s office. Anderson’s announcement comes after Houston police Chief Charles McClelland previously said his department was working to equip 3,500 officers over a three-year period.

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