Vidor Police Chief Dave Shows remembers the woman who came to his police station “screaming like a gut-shot panther” wanting to file a police brutality complaint. Shows says the incident at issue happened at the end of a traffic stop. The woman's boyfriend had been pulled over, and while they tried to ask him questions, the woman began to yelling at officers from the passenger seat, Shows says. When the woman wouldn't stop, officers asked her to step out of the car—which is when she "went ballistic," Shows says. She was ultimately arrested and accused of physically assaulting an officer.
Shows had video of the whole encounter because his officers were wearing body cameras. Before the woman wrote up her complaint and filed it with the department, Shows let her see the video—and then she left the station without filing anything.
“If you just had audio from that [traffic stop],” Shows said, “it sounds like a dadgum axe murder is being committed. But when you see it with video, nobody's even near this lady.”
At the Vidor Police Department, Shows gives his 24 officers the option of wearing the seven body cameras the department purchased more than a year ago. His street crimes team is often on foot in the middle of the night patrolling dark neighborhoods, and while they're away from the dash cams in their cars, Shows says this is the best way to supplement what officers otherwise couldn't capture. Shows plans on purchasing 10 to 12 more with the department's upcoming budget. “The body camera footage has been worth...well, it's priceless,” he said.
The nation has seen a growing push for these cameras in light of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Christian Taylor in Arlington. And while the thought of ubiquitous officer-mounted cameras has raised some concerns, a University of Cambridge report that studied the effectiveness of the cameras for a year at a California police department found that they decreased use of force by 50 percent, and that complaints had decreased by 90 percent compared to the previous year.
But while they're priceless for Chief Shows's department, in Houston price has been exactly the problem.
Despite mounting pressure from activist groups like Houston Justice Coalition, more aggressive body camera policy proposals from figures like mayoral candidate Ben Hall, city officials have yet to announce how they'll fund the ambitious plan to outfit all Houston police officers with body cams in the near future.
Last August, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland estimated it would cost $8 million to equip 3,500 officers with the cameras. In December, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson pledged $1.9 million in asset forfeiture funds while Mayor Annise Parker allocated $2.8 million to help fund McClelland's plan, according to the Houston Chronicle. Those plans date back to 2013, when McClelland announced he would outfit 100 officers with the cameras at a cost of $2,500 per officer. But so far, no data or information has been released regarding effectiveness or results of that test run, and no policy has been set up to address the many concerns ranging from privacy to tech malfunctions.
“We are in support of [the cameras]—but we know that the devil's in the details,” said Houston Police Officers Union President Ray Hunt. In regards to citizen privacy, Hunt is concerned that not enough attention has been paid to when it's appropriate to use the cameras.
Here's how Hunt put it: “What do we do on a public disturbance call when a female tells us, 'I do not want that camera turned on inside my house'? She doesn't want her neighbors to do a public information request and post the video on her Facebook page of her and her husband fighting. So do I turn it off, or do I leave it rolling? These questions have not been answered, because we have no policy in place.”
HJC has tried to work with HPD, but Durrell Douglas with the Houston Justice Coalition says the department hasn't really responded to their concerns. An HPD spokesman said the goal is to start rolling out more body cameras in the fall, but said the department could not provide any information about how it could be funded or implemented because those decisions have not yet been made.
“There needs to be a timeline and it needs to be followed,” Douglas said. “Months ago, January of this year, we were at city hall with our hands up—'hands up don't shoot'—and the mayor's office said, 'We're looking for the money, and this is gonna happen.' Well the time is ticking, the sand is falling from the hour glass. A lot of organizations feel that it's time to turn the heat up a bit more.”
The Justice Coalition's petition for the city council to pass body camera legislation requests a few key things: mainly, software that would allow data to be automatically uploaded as soon as an officer arrives back at the station to avoid tech malfunctions or deleted footage. (It was something Ray Hunt echoed aggressively, irritated that between the two technologies HPD is considering, this type is not one of them, meaning officers could be blamed for inadvertently mishandling the new equipment.) Secondly, HJC requested a Citizen Review Board of 12 members of the community, who would work in diverse sectors and are chosen by city council and would review an officer's body-cam footage following an excessive force complaint.
"To really build that bridge between law enforcement and community," Douglas said, "they have to open the doors for citizens at the decision-making table."
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Ben Hall's policy proposal would also create a Citizen Review Board, but with an added punch: The review board would have subpoena power. Hall said he has not worked out whether that would automatically make the footage available to the rest of the public (HPD spokesman Victor Senties says the public would have to submit a request just like for any other government record). To beat the funding challenge, Hall plans to funnel some tax increment reinvestment zone money into public safety. The city has already said that won't work, but Hall told the Press that the city's understanding of TIRZs is “undisciplined and elementary,” and that he's confident his plan is workable.
Another option for departments like HPD that are struggling to find funding may be a state grant that agencies can apply for to help pay for body cameras, thanks to a bill that passed this session, though it's still not yet clear whether HPD will take advantage of that opportunity.
Chief Shows at Vidor PD said he certainly is going to try.
Things have been going well with the cameras, and the street crimes unit “loves” them, wearing them by choice, Shows says. In the future, Shows may consider implementing more specific rules and guidelines for the body cameras, but at the moment he's hesitant for just one reason. “I'm not interested in turning the police into cameramen,” he said. “Their job is police work.”