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Senate Approves Body Camera Legislation

Local law enforcement agencies could apply for grants to equip their officers with body cameras and could also come up with guidelines for the equipment under legislation that the Senate approved Thursday.

Left to right: Officer Mario Martinez, Sergeant R. Richman and officer L. Lyons on duty.

Local law enforcement agencies could apply for grants to equip their officers with body cameras and could also come up with guidelines for the equipment under legislation that the Senate approved Thursday.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 158 by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, which would create a statewide policy for body camera programs used by law enforcement agencies.

"This is a bill that provides local law enforcement agencies with a choice," West said while laying out the bill. "A local office does not have to have a body camera program, but if they have a body camera program, there are some policies that need to have some uniformity across the state of Texas."

The measure now heads to the House, where two bills related to body cameras are also up for consideration

Body cameras are recording devices that can be affixed to law enforcement officers and used to document their actions. Their use has come into focus on the heels of a national debate about police accountability and safety. 

In Texas, Fort Worth, Sugar Land and Corpus Christi are among the cities that already have body camera programs, while several other cities, including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, are still testing such programs. 

Before passing the chamber with a 22-8 vote, SB 158 was debated by senators concerned with the cost of the program, access for rural law enforcement agencies, open records requests and questions of personal privacy for the officers wearing the cameras. West said he hoped to secure $10 million for a grant program, which would be administered by the governor's office.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, questioned West about the financial commitments of the state. While the grants would provide initial resources for training, equipment purchase and policy implementation, West clarified, the state would have no long-term responsibility to maintain the programs after that money expired. 

Lawmakers also debated how the legislation could allow for local decision-making processes to remain intact. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she appreciated the legislation as a "carrot" that would incentivize agencies to buy into body camera programs, but expressed concerns about the sovereignty of local law enforcement agencies. 

"Your bill will require agencies statewide to do what the state tells them to do, whether or not they accept money from the state of Texas," Huffman said.

"We don't prescribe everything that should go in the policy," West responded, emphasizing that his legislation would only require them to have a policy on the books. He said that local departments would be able to determine when police officers would be allowed to turn off their cameras, for example.

Debate also shifted to open records requests.

"I believe that we are creating programs that will have a huge cost to the state of Texas," Huffman said. "I have concerns about the redacting [of records] and the man hours that is going to take." 

The legislation included an amendment introduced by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, that said recordings not made on duty, or that were done during activities not meant to be recorded, would be exempt from public records requests.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, cited examples in which both law enforcement and the public have been put at risk during routing police stops.

"Wouldn't you admit that video evidence equipment is essential in all of these cases?" Estes said on the Senate floor. When numerous cameras are documenting interactions, he added, "the truth prevails."

In the House, a bill authored by state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, calls for Texas law enforcement officers to wear body cameras, while another bill by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, would create a committee to study the cameras.

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