Houston 101

HPD Starts to Roll Out More Than 4,000 Police Body Cameras

Yesterday, the Houston Police Department and City of Houston announced that they would begin rolling out some 4,100 police body cameras over the next 18 months.

A couple dozen officers sat in plastic chairs as Mayor Sylvester Turner, Interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo, and others welcomed several boxes of the new police-transparency tool, saying they hoped the body cameras would help build trust with the public. Montalvo noted that it was the “largest implementation of body cameras in the country." It cost $8 million, paid for with various grants and even with asset forfeiture funds — money that was seized from criminals.

“It is my hope that this particular device will help to make this city safer and enhance the relationship between the community and the police,” Mayor Turner said, “because when all is said and done, we're on the same page: fighting those who want to commit crimes against citizens.”

The policy, finalized last month, requires officers to turn the body cameras on any time they go after a suspect, arrive at a scene, initiate a traffic or pedestrian stop, when they detain someone, search someone—virtually, any time they interact with non-police officers, unless it is a “casual encounter.” All the officers are required to upload their footage to a server by the end of their shift. Unless it’s after an incident like an officer-involved shooting. In that case, the supervisor will take the camera away from the officer and then upload the footage immediately.

But if the purpose is to build trust within the community, then the real question is, does the public get to see the footage?

In theory, yes. The policy allows people to request footage through a Texas Public Information Act request. But the policy also allows HPD’s Internal Affairs Division to decide to make certain footage “confidential,” mostly following officer-involved shootings, use of force that causes serious injuries, or “allegations of serious misconduct” — basically, all the types of footage that are high-stakes and of public importance. Montalvo said that the reason for this is so that no one can tamper with the video; it becomes “evidentiary” and needs to be preserved.

Either way, the footage will be admissible in court, and that’s where it’ll count the most. As we recently reported, cops are pretty much never indicted for shooting and killing unarmed people. And body cams might change that.

It was a topic that never quite broke through the celebratory atmosphere, full of officers trying on new toys like it was the day after Christmas.

One officer, A. McHenry, told the Houston Press the cameras will hopefully eliminate the "he said, she said" disputes that arise after tense encounters. But as with anything new, he's also a little nervous about all the new procedures that come with them. When it comes down to it, though, McHenry said one of the best things about body cameras may not only be that we can go back to them later and review what happened, but that their mere presence may even stop both police and citizens from escalating situations to the point that we would need to.

“Think about human nature,” he said. “We all act differently in front of a camera. Everybody does."