HPD Presented Its Body Camera Policy to Council Yesterday, and It Was a Mess

As we’ve written before, there are plenty of examples that show why the Houston Police Department badly needs department-wide body cameras.

Take for instance the death of Blake Pate, an unarmed man shot and killed on Christmas Day 2011 by an HPD officer who, despite his troubling disciplinary history, was still on the job. There was the time back in 2012 an HPD officer shot and killed an unarmed, mentally ill, wheelchair-bound double amputee wielding a ballpoint pen. Then there’s case of Jordan Baker, an unarmed black man shot and killed by an off-duty HPD officer working security at a strip mall last year.

Ever since HPD last year committed to outfitting all 4,100 of its patrol officers with body cameras, it’s been a question of how and when that might happen. The department’s draft policy, which it presented to city council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee yesterday, was supposed to provide answers.

Instead, here’s what council members got from HPD brass yesterday: HPD doesn’t know how much the program will cost, doesn’t know how it will manage the flood of body-cam data it will be tasked with storing and maintaining, and can’t even say how it will determine which footage to keep and what to toss (that is, other than to say it would depend on whether an officer deems the footage “evidentiary”).

HPD says it wants a final body-cam policy approved by council by the end of the year, and that its officers should be outfitted with the technology by the end of 2016. How that can possibly happen at this point remains to be seen. And it’s not just that HPD can’t say how much the policy will cost (although the department in the past has said it would need $6.6 million, about $4 million of which has already been raised through city capital improvement funds, asset forfeiture money and a donation from the Harris County DA’s office).

Council members on Tuesday had their own reservations with the plan presented by HPD executive assistant chief Timothy Oettmeier. Council member C.O. Bradford, Houston’s former police chief, scolded Oettmeier for not involving “community stakeholders” when the department drafted its plan — stakeholders like the Houston Justice Coalition, which has asked that HPD set up a citizen review board to review an officer’s body cam footage following an excessive force complaint.

At the meeting Tuesday, Oettmeier ran through a dizzying explanation of when officers would and wouldn’t be expected to film — yes when executing search warrants, transporting prisoners, chasing a suspect, interviewing victims or moonlighting as security guards elsewhere; no when interviewing sexual assault victims, talking to confidential informants or any other time an officer deems it “impractical," according to the draft policy, "based on whether a reasonable officer under the same or similar circumstances would have made the same decision.”

Oettmeier also told council members how the department would determine which footage to keep and what to toss after sitting on it for 90 days. Ultimately, he said, it would hinge on whether an officer says the footage has evidentiary value for any particular case. Council member Dave Martin bristled at the notion. “How can the officer that may have been involved in the arrest, in the crime, in the whatever, determine an evidentiary position?” he asked. “It seems like that would be a conflict of interest.”

Houston Police Officer Union president Ray Hunt echoed the sentiment, saying, “We don’t want any of our officers making that determination.”

See the draft policy below: