Body cameras for HPD

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is asking City Hall for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency.

Last December, McClelland announced a pilot program that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices at a cost of $2,500 per officer, explaining that body cameras were more likely to record officers’ contact with residents than dashboard cameras in patrol cars.


Proponents of body cameras – roughly the size of a pager that can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt- say the technology can be key in lowering use of force by police and citizen complaints. However, the effort to equip additional officers with the devices faces uncertainty as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration acknowledged Wednesday it is having trouble finding money to pay for the project.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency” in assessing the actions of local law enforcement.

“Often times a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said. “It’s great if we have cameras there. For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer.”

Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act “a little more professionally” when wearing the devices.

Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency for the adoption of this kind of technology in the wake of Ferguson. There are questions about how these cameras will be used, in particular how available the data will be, but these are a better option than dashboard cams, which are often not facing the right direction to capture what’s happening, and don’t have audio either. As with video recording interrogations, having these cameras in wide use will protect both the public and the police, since unfounded complaints can be dispatched easily. Having a clear record of what happens when there’s a violent confrontation, especially a shooting, should help restore some trust. I hope a funding source can be identified and the potential of this technology can be fully exploited. See Grits and Hair Balls for more.

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9 Responses to Body cameras for HPD

  1. Joe White says:

    These can’t be deployed fast enough, but the camera prices seem off by an order of magnitude. These can be had for ~$200. Why the inflated cost?

  2. Steven Houston says:

    Joe, if you want a cheap, home grade camera, you can get one cheap but if you want one to withstand the elements and stresses of day in and day out use, you’re going to need a professional model. Feel free to research the different gear on the market, it is a night and day difference.

    As far as the cameras themselves are concerned, city officers are being promised that when camera use eventually starts, the district attorney’s office will much more readily accept charges against those who make false complaints. At current time, their department and DA’s office have a standing policy of rarely accepting such a charge as it has a chilling effect on legitimate complaints but that is supposed to go out the window with the cameras.

    Some civil libertarians will be up in arms because you will not be able to have the officer stop recording you and he does not have to announce when he is recording, the officers to be drilled on proper use of the cameras as a means of generating evidence more than protect them from false complaints. From a cursory look at some footage shot by a similar type of camera, a lot will be upset over just how threatening they look from the camera’s point of view. You can read between the lines how that will translate to courtrooms as evidence or in grand jury proceedings involving police shootings but groups like the ACLU have been demanding such cameras for a long time and will get exactly what they asked for as soon as the city shells out the money.

    Lucky for them, the feds do not seem anxious to pony up funds in a grant, nor was the chief’s request timely for this year’s budget; the man knowing full well that the city is facing several years of austerity budgeting due to bond debt coming due and such. Further, the buzz has been that the $8 million is merely a starting point for funding since it will not include training, maintenance, nor the huge number of man hours needed for supervisors to credibly review even minimal portions of the recordings. As HPD is well known to generate 3/4’s of all complaints internally (officer on officer) rather than from the community, and those wanting to complain will not have access to the recordings prior to filing a formal complaint, I suspect a lot of people are going to wish they did not support the cameras as presented.

  3. Joe White says:

    “Williams said police have field-tested body cams, but have not widely used them so far because of cost. One camera can cost up to $400.”

  4. Joe White says:

    “One problem with the cameras, however, has been cost. Fortunately, fierce competition between the two most prominent vendors of the devices, Vievu LLC and Taser International Inc., which makes the cameras used by Rialto police, has driven the price of individual cameras down to between $300 and $400.”

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    I definitely am in favor of the cameras. They will protect the police from false allegations, and hopefully, make police/public interactions more civil, since all sides will know up front that the interactions are being recorded. I do wonder about the technical aspect of this. How long will those recordings be kept? Sometimes it takes a while for an allegation to come to light…..will the recording of the events still be available a week later? A month?

  6. Steven Houston says:

    Joe, your original comment was based on a $200 camera. You will not currently find a $200 camera that meets needed specs and does what it is needed to do. The version of the Vievu camera the trial program was based on is no longer made but I suspect one of the following answers is most accurate:
    1) their chief doesn’t keep up with rapidly changing factors like prices on cameras (the original cameras cost about two grand each)

    2) the city once again wanted the standardized cameras customized like they tend to do for other equipment such as their expensive new radios, their hand held ticket devices, their laptops, etc. Once they decide a feature is needed, cost is no object in obtaining said feature, rather than brainstorm a work around.

    Government procurement would also explain why the current version of the cameras they are looking to buy, not the $400 version by Taser but the $900 version by Vievu, might also explain the difference because the cameras alone do not complete the mission. This could include a long term contract for storage, the company or a third party building the city it’s own secure storage, as well as a dozen other related things such as those lousy batteries both companies offer (which are built into the devices and last maybe a year but degrade with each use).

    There are other specialty brand cameras on the market too but given the success the city had with Vievu, I’d be surprised if they went with the TASER brand, especially given how many problems they’ve had with the batteries on their tasers from the same company. Regardless, never underestimate the ability of any organization spending other people’s money, the city police chief at least convincing me that cost is the least of his considerations.

  7. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, they are developing a policy on all of that as we speak. Their previous policy for videotapes was 90 days unless something was marked as evidence to be held longer. Since these will be all digital, they will either contract with the company, its third party vendor (Amazon in one case), or have dedicated storage built in-house at great expense but it is uncommon for a credible complaint to arise more than a month after an incident. Given how many outside systems get hacked all the time, it is possible the city will require an in-house solution, cost be damned.

  8. Joe White says:

    Steven, thank you for your replies. Obviously you have more information about the program than what was available in the article. I was assuming that the cost of the cameras was not inclusive of the further infrastructure cost.

    Not being privy to the specs stipulated in the bid, I was only going on the media reports about what other departments are spending. Yes, $400 is twice the $200 I mentioned, but that’s still a far cry from $2500. Still, PAPD is using $200 cameras.

  9. Steven Houston says:

    Joe, glad my comments were helpful. The camera PAPD uses is not really a commercial grade camera and wasn’t close to the specs the city listed. Those are the kind you can buy at Best Buy and Sears, not made for heavy duty work. It would be nice if the city offered reporters a spec sheet and why they want one of the more expensive cameras available but the mayor won’t specifically know, nor will their chief, the one who kept closest tabs would be some low level supervisor or mid level Lt.

    Even the more expensive cameras have problems though, some officers reporting that it takes awhile to download using the current computer set up they have with just a few officers per station. If you multiply that out by the thousands to be assigned, they are going to need far better computers and a system to manage the footage. Even if the city was the best bargain hunter out there (and it is not), that aspect of the program is going to entail significant costs that I openly wonder about being included in the stated price tag.

    And though it will never happen, I think the best way to restore trust would be for all camera footage to be accessible online with rare exceptions. Not something where a defense lawyer or community activist would have to jump through hoops, figure out which officer’s footage, etc but literally all of it. I can guarantee you will get groups of volunteers watching it laboriously searching for some way to discredit the police, making it a de facto citizen review board who would then publicize those rare instances when the officers screw up. My point on that is much like the police scanners of old that some would listen too; adding a form of accountability to the general public. Upon hearing of some issue, the city could watch the specific footage and decide how to proceed in terms of answering critics but it would help put things in perspective when you get a few cases of possible roughness versus thousands of hours worth of footage.

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