Body camera questions continue at Austin City Hall

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

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A new series of proposals from a state-wide public policy watchdog aims to clear up what appears to be ongoing confusion over when the public will be able to access Austin police body worn camera (BWC) videos and when people’s privacy will be protected.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition also recommends setting a timeline for the release of all critical incident video in cases such as officer-involved shootings.

“Body cameras are likely to provide the best factual information about an incident that citizens and the department have ever had. That is why they are a widely supported approach to accountability and can help build trust between the police force and those who pay their salaries,” wrote Kathy Mitchell in the four-page brief expected to be presented at Austin’s Public Safety Committee meeting Monday afternoon.

Thursday, the Austin City Council held off on approving contracts for the APD’s long-awaited body camera program. Council tossed the issue to the four-member Public Safety Committee meeting Monday afternoon in hopes of first clarifying various questions about APD’s final BWC policy released two weeks ago.

Regarding the release of video, APD Body Camera Policy 2015 states: “The Department will comply with all applicable laws… Open Records requests will be processed through the Department Coordinator in central records.”

Council Member for District 1, Ora Houston, who also sits on the Committee, said she wanted more formalized specifics for when video could be withheld from public release, such as times when children are recorded in a domestic violence situation.

The policy based on state law, says officers can turn off their cameras when someone expects a reasonable amount of privacy, such as in their own home and if the officer can explain in their follow up incident reporting why they’re doing it.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Monday issued the brief calling for more guidance for APD officers – including clearer policy wording on:

  • How body cameras will be used in First Amendment-protected activities, and the relationship between this data and surveillance technologies available to law enforcement
  • How body cameras should be used in a “private space” (e.g., a private home), and clearer guidelines for turning off the camera upon request to protect certain classes of individuals (witnesses, children, etc.)
  • Notification to the public that interactions are being videotaped (several jurisdictions have done this already)
  • A procedure for documenting on the video itself the discretionary decisions by officers to turn off the camera
  • Public disclosure of critical incident video that is not taken in “private spaces”

‘Prompt public release’ of BWC video

As for increasing transparency and public trust the Coalition suggests “a clearly defined subset of such video be incorporated into a standardized and even-handed procedure for prompt public release” such as:

  • deadly force (regardless of the nature of that force)
  • all officer-involved shootings
  • all tasings
  • other use of force incidents that result in an investigation; and
  • any incident that results in a complaint to the Office of the Police Monitor (OPM) by a member of the public

For incidents involving use of force:

  • During the first three days after an incident, while investigators are pursuing immediate leads and conducting initial interviews, and while the officer is viewing all the videotape as required by law before making a statement, the video can remain confidential.
  • After that three day period, a copy of all the video, including any dash cam video that might also exist, should be given to the person harmed or the family of the deceased or a lawyer representing the person harmed or the family of the deceased.
  • After another three days, all the video should be released to the public.
  • If body camera or dash camera video clearly displays the faces of children or the faces of witnesses, the video should be released with the faces blurred.

Right now, APD typically will not release dash cam video of a critical incident until the criminal justice process has concluded. In the recent fatal shooting of David Joseph, the District Attorney’s Office released the video after a grand jury no-billed the officer involved.

The Coalition memo concludes: For incidents that result in a complaint to the OPM by a member of the public, essentially the same framework should be implemented, except that the timeframe would start with the filing of the complaint. A member of the public whose offense “constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by fine only and does not result in arrest” (e.g. traffic stop video) must be told about their right to decide not to allow release of the video to the general public in accordance with 1701.661(f). The complainant should always be given a copy of the video of his or her own interaction with the officer, regardless of that choice. The City should publicly post the procedure for members of the public to request and receive video of their own interactions with officers.

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