Texas lawmakers to study impact of thousands of soon-to-be-active body cameras

Texas state capitol

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Police body cameras have the ability to show us exactly what happened in an officer encounter. Police believe cameras will help in their investigations. The state legislature agrees. They offered up $10 million dollars last year to help local departments buy thousands of body cameras.

Monday there’s an interim hearing on the House select committee on emerging issues in Texas law enforcement. Lawmakers passed SB 158 in the summer of 2015.

“It’s the wave of the future you know. Why would you not have them. It’s just extra protection for your department and your officers,” Manor Police Chief Ryan Phipps told KXAN in January. Twenty Manor police officers will soon be strapped with a camera as they patrol the Austin suburb. But with a price tag of $40,000 – Manor couldn’t pay by themselves. They filled out the paperwork for a grant passed by lawmakers, administered by the Governor’s office that pays for around 15 of the 20 cameras.

Departments must put in one dollar for every three dollars the state gives.

“A lot of our guys are younger officers and they aren’t afraid of technology. The majority of us, or all of us, see it as extra protection for us on the street,” said Chief Phipps.

Police will now collect massive amounts of video. Video of any Texan could be recorded if they encounter an officer with a camera. So Monday lawmakers will get an update on how departments will protect that video. Police associations worried about the release of sensitive information while lawmakers were writing the bill. They wanted to protect children, abused spouses, and neighbor to neighbor conflicts from a public information act request.

Police must retain the video for a minimum of 90 days according to SB 158 and must have backup copies. A recording created with a body camera involving the use of deadly force or related to a criminal investigation of an office may not be deleted, destroyed, or released to the public until all criminal matter have been resolved.

To have access to the video a person must provide the following information; the date and approximate time of recording, the specific location the incident occurred, and the name of one of more people in the video.

“We didn’t want to have a blanket open records request where some media outlet could say I want everything that you do every day. That’s just not fair to the department. They can’t maintain that. It would take an entire division to handle that,” said Representative Allen Fletcher, R – Cypress.

Representative Allen Fletcher chairs a select committee on emerging issues in law enforcement. Monday’s hearing will begin to study this first wave of cameras; how they work, what can we learn, are there any problems. He hopes to hear from police and make sure every officer who needs a body camera, has one.

Some departments don’t have to wait to get the grant money. The Governor’s office tells us departments have until July 15th to apply. If they apply earlier, they could have the money to buy the cameras before the deadline.

The grant money will buy several thousand cameras for local departments. Austin Police will get $750,000 for 500 cameras. Travis County Sheriff’s will receive $128,000 for 50 cameras. Bastrop County, Fayette County and San Marcos Police are each getting about $50,000. The program will enable 267 law enforcement agencies to buy nearly 10,000 cameras.

They might remove the mystery of some officer-involved shootings. Last month, an Austin Police officer killed 17-year-old David Joseph. Police say he was naked in the street and acting aggressively. An autopsy released Friday revealed he had marijuana and Xanax in his system. At the time, police said part of the incident was captured on dash cam. The officer involved has waived his right to a disciplinary hearing.

According to SB 158, an officer can discontinue recording currently in progress for any nonconfrontational encounter with a person, including an interview of a witness or victim.

Texas lawmakers to study impact of thousands of soon-to-be-active body cameras