When Houston police officers shot and killed an armed man standing in a street intersection this summer, officers’ body cameras taped the incident – but the recordings didn’t start until after the man had been shot.
The video released to the public didn’t convince skeptics that police were telling the truth about the man allegedly pointing his gun at the officers. And critics questioned whether the department’s homicide division could investigate the officer-related shooting death objectively.
After just two weeks on the job, Art Acevedo, Houston’s new police chief, is calling for two major changes in department policy to improve transparency. He wants body cameras to start recording automatically when police officers exit their vehicles, and he plans to create a specialized unit this spring that will investigate officer-related shootings and alleged wrongdoing by police.
“To me the relationship between a police department and a community starts with legitimacy,” Acevedo told the Houston Chronicle this week. “Cameras and the way we investigate officer-involved shootings … is absolutely the most important aspect of what we do to build that legitimacy and to build that trust. That’s why I’m starting there.”
Automatically activated body cameras could help prevent situations like the Braziel case in which critical moments are not captured on video. Acevedo said they also would simplify things for police.
“When an officer turns a corner and they see a person being shot or assaulted or stabbed, the last thing they should be worrying about is hitting a button,” he said.
Along with the camera policy, Acevedo said he plans to change how the department handles officer-involved shootings and other criminal investigations of police.
“Hopefully by the end of the first quarter, we’ll be establishing a special investigations unit that will be handling officer-involved shootings and officer-involved criminal allegations,” Acevedo said.
At a meeting Thursday, the chief said he hopes the new unit will launch in April as part of a larger reorganization.
Currently, officer-involved shootings are investigated by three entities: HPD’s homicide and internal affairs units, and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
The new unit, whose members Acevedo says he will “hand-select,” would investigate officer-involved shootings, taking the place of homicide detectives.
“It’s a matter of prioritizing their limited bandwidth,” Acevedo said, noting that each year homicide investigators get about 45 officer-involved shootings added to their load of 300 or so murder cases.
The body camera proposal makes a lot of sense. There are cost questions, both for the hardware and for the increased storage, but those are surely surmountable. As for the special investigations unit for police-involved shootings, the main concern here is sufficient transparency to ensure public trust. Either people will believe this unit will do a fair and impartial job, or they will believe that it will tip the scales in favor of the officers. The rest is mostly details. So far there’s no real opposition to any of this, but we’ll see what happens as these ideas move forward. The Press has more.