Body Camera Law a Timely Texas Success Story
Tuesday, July 5th, 2016 @ 5:02PM
DALLAS – We’re just past the year mark since Senate Bill 158 – that created statewide standards and a one-time funding stream for body worn cameras to be used by Texas’ patrol officers – was signed into law. And since that time, program supporters have by far outnumbered detractors. With nearly all objectives met, I think I can proudly call the endeavor of establishing uniform, comprehensive body camera policy, a qualified success.
The journey of SB158 actually began during Fall 2014. You might recall the furious national discussion surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, young Tamir Rice and others, that placed many African Americans and activists squarely at odds with law enforcement and the courts, over the perceived lack of accountability and the failure to hold persons responsible for questionable actions that resulted in deaths; all seemingly in sad succession.
While some said the move toward body worn cameras in Texas was too soon, I insisted that there was no better time to act than the present. We worked quickly to gain local consensus among area law enforcement officials and arrived in Austin in January 2015 with a plan in place. That plan was to identify best practices and create state policy on body worn cameras and also assist police and sheriff’s departments with program costs. The tool of body camera technology would become an impartial observer of law enforcement and citizen interactions to address growing accountability concerns.
There are some 2,664 recognized law enforcement agencies in Texas that employ more than 59,000 licensed peace officers. There’s law enforcement administration; the chiefs of police and sheriffs and there are officers – the deputy sheriffs and patrolmen. There are city and county officials. All would have their say and of course no voice on this volatile issue of police conduct rings louder than that of the public; the families of victims and those of advocates. But none of them pass laws. That would be the job of a staunchly conservative Texas Legislature.
Those many voices are represented in the language of SB158; issues like when cameras should be activated or shutdown, who should be equipped with cameras, proper incident reporting, records retention, public access, officer and staff training, and privacy concerns were all discussed until consensus was reached. The biggest obstacles were not posed by law enforcement, but by a few legislators regarding the level of financial support – if any – that should be provided to help local departments. That obstacle was also overcome when $10 million was appropriated to fund a grant program to be administered by the governor’s office to award local agencies.
Initial grant information was distributed in October 2015, a month after SB158 became law. Applications were accepted the same month, with a December 2015 submission deadline. Just a month later, mid-January 2016, initial awards were announced. The 267 police and Sheriff’s departments who applied and met grant guidelines would all be awarded, outfitting more than 16,900 officers with body worn cameras. The grants will also assist with video storage costs. The final grant approval period ends in August.
As more and more departments implement body camera programs under the provisions and flexibility of SB158, there remain issues to be resolved related to the timely release of information to the public. When the bright lights of transparency and justice can consistently illuminate what happens in the places where Black, Brown, Red, White and blue meet, we can then write the story about the program’s ultimate success.