Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson plans to purchase hundreds of body-worn cameras for Houston police officers and sheriff’s deputies, weeks after widespread protests erupted when a white Missouri police officer was not charged for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen.
In the aftermath of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 24, civil rights groups have called for increased accountability during police encounters, including the use of small cameras worn on officers’ uniforms. This month the Chicago police department, the nation’s second-biggest force, announced a pilot program for body cameras to begin in January. The Obama administration also recently asked Congress for approval to spend $263 million to help states acquire 50,000 body cameras.
A sheriff’s spokesman and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, confirmed the purchase of the body cameras locally.
Local officials with the NAACP called the camera initiative “good news.”
“That’s a very positive step,” said Carroll Robinson, treasurer-elect with the Houston Branch of the NAACP. “The body camera won’t solve every problem but the more we can see the less we have to rely on he-said, she-said.
“They will help improve community trust in the law enforcement system and bring confidence to those who want to make sure the criminal justice system is hearing their voice and their concerns.”
Carmen Roe, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said body cameras are “essential to provide transparency out on the streets, for the protection of law enforcement as well as citizens in the community.”
Roe and others said policies and guidelines for the cameras’ use are critical.
“I hope there will be some written policies in place to ensure the cameras are not used at the discretion of officers,” Roe said. “Any time there are officers out on the street, their cameras should be activated to record any interaction with citizens in the community.”
Agreed on all counts, and major kudos to DA Devon Anderson for taking this initiative. This also addresses something I’ve been thinking of since the push for body cameras for HPD began, which is what about Sheriff’s deputies? There’s a lot more cops than just HPD, after all. Of course, there’s more than HPD and the HCSO, too, but you have to start somewhere.
You also have to keep in mind that body cameras are a tool and one piece of a much larger puzzle. They’re not a solution in and of themselves.
Justin Ready, an assistant professor of criminology at Arizona State University who has conducted research on the use of body cameras in the Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix police departments, said the technology may not be enough to prevent another Ferguson.
“Any interaction is complex. The cameras might show you five pieces of a 10-piece puzzle, and we tend to fill in those blind spots with our own biases,” he said.
Though body cameras can raise transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens, experts also urge caution about unrealistic expectations for the devices.
One study released in September, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program” – a joint report from the Police Executive Research Forum and the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – examined how agencies were using the devices and offered recommendations for those considering outfitting officers with cameras.
“There’s a lot of public support for it right now and agencies are really wanting to jump on board, but what we say is: Do this cautiously and think about what your policies are going to be and how this is going to impact your community and how officers are going to do their jobs,” said Lindsay Miller, the report’s co-author and a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum.
Most cameras cost $1,000 to $1,500 each, but deploying the units also requires a more expensive component: video storage and management.
“Every video, no matter how you store it, has to be uploaded, characterized, properly tagged and sometimes linked to a document system,” Miller said. “This program requires a considerable amount of money and manpower.”
Absolutely, and it also requires a lot of thought, and ideally a lot of engagement with the public, to do this effectively and appropriately. That we are going to start thinking about these things, and again getting the public involved in the process, is a positive step. I commend DA Devon Anderson, whose action will enable all Sheriff’s deputies to get body cameras, for doing her part to make this happen. Grits, who notes pushes for body cameras all over Texas, and Hair Balls have more.