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Lawmakers Skeptical of Body Cameras for Police — for Now

State Rep. Ron Reynolds made his case on Thursday for requiring cops in Texas to wear body cameras, citing the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man in South Carolina. But police advocates were skeptical.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, during a House Environmental Regulations Committee meeting on April 16, 2013.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds made his case on Thursday for requiring police in Texas to wear body cameras, citing national news out of South Carolina at a public legislative hearing. 

“You can look no further than the most recent incident in South Carolina,” the Missouri City Democrat said, referring to a bystander’s video of a cop shooting and killing an unarmed black man. “But for that video recording, it’s very unlikely that that officer would have been charged with murder.”  

Body cameras — recording devices that can be affixed to police officers and document their actions — have received a lot of attention in recent months. President Obama is calling for their use nationwide, and Gov. Greg Abbott has said they are “a step in the right direction.” A bill Reynolds has filed this legislative session calls for Texas law enforcement officers to wear them; he has also proposed setting aside $50 million in the state budget to help pay for them. 

But developing a clear policy on body cameras is fraught with complications, argued police advocates who testified at Thursday's House Committee on Emerging Issues in Texas Law Enforcement hearing. 

“When you try to nail down exactly how that’s going to be done in statute, you’re going to run into conflict,” said Ron Hickman, a police constable in Harris County. “I just think it’s premature at this time.”

Among Hickman’s chief concerns was what to do with the massive amount of data that would result from equipping all police officers with so-called bodycams.

The cameras themselves are relatively inexpensive: $1,000 each, he estimated. That's cheaper than each of the dashboard cameras ("dash cams") currently installed in all 1,000 Harris County cop cars, he said. 

But it's much more costly to maintain all of the videos on servers, and to redact them — or blur faces — to protect identities. 

It already takes half an hour to redact dash cam video of a 15-minute traffic stop, and Harris County gets hundreds of requests for them each month, Hickman said. If all 2,000 Harris County police officers had bodycams, “we’re looking at a lot more data, a lot more requests,” he said.

There's also disagreement over how long videos from bodycams should be kept. Under Reynolds' bill, it's 180 days. Hickman said 90 days is more practical; that's the standard practice for Harris County's dash cam footage today, unless the video is needed for evidence. 

Melinda Smith, who testified on behalf of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT, added that there are also privacy concerns. What if a police officer leaves a bodycam on and “he happens to make a phone call to his wife?” she asked. If that video ended up being part of an open records request, “we wouldn’t want that necessarily released to the public.” 

State Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, echoed many of those worries. “We want to make sure that we have the input of Texas law enforcement … [and] that we don’t impede what you’re trying to do,” he told Hickman, noting that Harris County and other Texas police forces are already looking into equipping officers with bodycams. Fletcher chairs the House Committee on Emerging Issues in Texas Law Enforcement.

But he added that once the issues are worked out, “I think the technology’s going to be good for the people of Texas and for law enforcement.” 

A similar discussion has been ongoing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which heard a bill on Tuesday regarding police bodycams. That measure, authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, would require local law enforcement to apply for grants to equip officers with body cameras and come up with guidelines for using them. 

The bill is being modified to address concerns from both police groups and police accountability advocates, as is companion legislation from state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas. Reynolds said Thursday he will revise his proposal, too, before asking committee members to vote on it. 

“It’s all new. No state has a state-mandated body camera program,” Reynolds said after the hearing.

At the same time, he added, the Legislature can't afford to wait another session.

“What if we save a life? It’s worth it,” he said. “I’m sure [in South Carolina] they’re wishing they had body cameras right now.” 

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Courts Criminal justice State government Ron Reynolds Royce West Texas Legislature