Early returns on body cameras are positive

So far so good.

The majority of 100 Houston Police Department officers who have field tested body cameras over a recent two-month period called it a positive experience, though many expressed concern that the technology could endanger officer safety or be used by superiors to discipline them, according to an internal report obtained this week by the Houston Chronicle.

That technology is expected to be adopted department-wide beginning this summer as a way to increase police accountability.


In one case, a body camera video later helped confirm the validity of an on-scene confession, the survey showed.

In all, 72 officers who responded to the survey rated the body camera experience either very positive, positive or somewhat positive. Only 7 officers found the experience unacceptable, according to the report.

Some officers complained they felt reluctant to use necessary force on suspects -or even forceful language – for fear of being accused by superiors of abusive behavior. Others said they were distracted by the camera, reacted more slowly instead of relying on their “natural reactions,” or even placed themselves in a dangerous position during a traffic stop to get a better camera angle on the scene.

“Having to remember to activate a camera when engaging in a foot pursuit, ending a car chase or approaching a vehicle in a traffic stop reduces focus on the task at hand,” said one officer surveyed.

But it’s still unclear when officers will have to turn on – or off -those cameras, and HPD has refused to release a draft policy it’s developing.

Several officers complained about “vague guidelines” for use of their test cameras. That same complaint is also being raised by two Houston attorneys defending two different residents whose arrests were recorded with the cameras.

A copy of the report is at the story link. I’ll say again, we do need to know how HPD plans to use these things. We’re almost at the time for the planned rollout, so any day now would be nice. In the meantime, the Lege is moving on a bill that would “create a statewide grant program to fund training, the purchase of equipment and the cost of implementing the policy that would draw upon federal funds”. As such, if Houston is having a positive experience with body cameras, then there’s good hope the rest of the state can as well.

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One Response to Early returns on body cameras are positive

  1. Steven Houston says:

    Keep in mind that the “positive experience” they are referring to is solely in regards to how field officers perceive their use under currently “flexible” guidelines. If the city police chief were to make a declaration like Dallas’ Chief did this week, telling officers that they would face severe discipline for turning cameras off (or not turning them on), that survey would certainly provide different numbers. When the first round of guidelines come out they will almost certainly allow ample wiggle room on both sides of the issue to allow more discretion, which in turn means any discipline handed out will likely be watered down by an arbitrator should it be challenged.

    If the body cameras were to be solely governed by what makes a police officer happy or for evidence against a criminal, this would be fine & dandy. The fact is, the cameras have been sold to the public as a measure of governmental transparency and to enhance police accountability though, a far cry from the previous assertion. As mentioned previously, there are other stakeholders than police officers, their chain of command, prosecutors and defense lawyers, so refusing to even allow a peek at potential guidelines seems unreasonable. Just looking at all the redactions in that poorly written report speaks volumes as to the likelihood that many of us are not going to be happy with what they come up with.

    So while I support cameras in general, like Kuff and most others, I acknowledge that the devil is in the details. The first time some rape victim sees her interview on YouTube because the system was hacked (or some employee exercises poor judgement) or the ambulance chaser who files scores of public information request act requests only to find officers are activating the cameras AFTER their clients are seen breaking the law (running a stop sign, red light, whatever), a big stink will be raised. I suspect the same holds true for for people being recorded that do not want to be recorded, whether they are a witness or suspect; some people already under the impression that they can “order” an officer to stop recording (good luck with that by the way).

    In any case, those who have been told the cameras were mostly a check on police activity will fare the worse because the cameras are going to find far more common use against citizens than police. And for the truly evil, truly “bad” cops out there (who I think are very few in number compared to guys like Grits), they will be smart enough to invest in mechanisms to defeat the cameras (a few bucks buys you an electro-magnet powered by a battery, other examples easy to find online) or erase footage; some decent officers already under the impression that they will leave them on unless ordered otherwise, making for other troubles.

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