Why Do So Few HPD Cars Have Dashcams?

In Houston, you've got a much higher chance of being shot by police than you do in most other large cities. You've also got a much smaller chance of having the shooting recorded by a dashboard camera or a body camera. That's because, in 2016, the Houston Police Department is equipped with only 200 dashboard cameras and 100 body cameras — a strikingly low figure compared with other departments across the country.

According to an article in The New York Times last week, "[the] rate of shootings by police officers was higher in Houston from 2010 to 2014 than in New York or Los Angeles, and the Houston police killed more people than the Los Angeles police despite having half as many officers," but a lack of video evidence may have stymied public outcry and made it easier for officers to go unpunished for questionable shootings. 

In 2013, the Houston Chronicle reported that 5 percent of HPD's fleet of nearly 4,000 vehicles were equipped with dashboard cameras, while the Dallas Police Department had about 55 percent, the highest of the six biggest law enforcement agencies in Texas. Unsurprisingly, none of the 121 HPD shootings between 2008 and 2012 were recorded by dash-mounted cameras — and more than a quarter of the civilian shooting victims were unarmed.

But according to HPD Captain Michael Skillern, dash cameras wouldn't be very useful even if they were on every HPD car.

"Here in the city, the majority of our police work does not happen in front of a patrol car," Skillern said in a phone interview. "We have found that patrol car videos are great for DWIs, in the traffic units whose primary function is just doing traffic stops all day long on the highways and on some of the side streets... But the vast number of police interactions we have here occur outside the view of a police vehicle, whether it's in a residence, in a courtyard, a store, a park, where a camera attached to a car just won't capture those interactions...It's a gigantic undertaking to outfit all of the patrol cars for the very small chance that something other than a DWI or traffic stop would be recorded. That's why we thought the best route would be to try to outfit all of our officers with body cameras, because wherever the officer is, that camera will be with them capturing the event."

Of course, HPD has yet to fulfill its lofty body camera goals, and dashboard cameras would almost certainly have helped shed some light on at least a few of HPD's otherwise visually undocumented shootings. 

One incident that pokes a hole in HPD's dash camera logic was the 2011 fatal shooting of 24-year-old Blake Pate by HPD officer Curtis Hampton during a traffic stop following a car accident. According to the Chronicle's remarkable three-part investigation into HPD shootings in 2013, Hampton gave the following account of the incident in a deposition:

After the crash, Hampton said, Pate was walking away from the wreck. Hampton said he got out of his patrol car and stood in front of Pate to stop him.

Hampton said Pate pushed him away. The officer said when he drew his gun Pate complied and walked with him to the police cruiser.

As Pate leaned against the cruiser with his hands on the hood, Hampton said he tried to handcuff him.

Pate, he said, let out a scream, pushed back into him and knocked off his reading glasses. "He grabbed his head, and then he says 'Aaaaaaah' and charged me,"� Hampton said.

The officer said he fired his gun at Pate, the first shot hitting him in the thigh from about 6 feet away and the second hitting him in the chest. In the process, Hampton said he fell onto his back and from the ground shot Pate three more times in the neck. The officer said he was afraid Pate was reaching down to take his gun and shoot him or others.  

According to the Chron, at least one eyewitness disputed Hampton's account:

[Witness Deonte] Harris said Pate was following the officer's instructions to hold out his hands and show he was unarmed.

"When the police officer went to the front (of the police car), the guy started walking towards the police officer with his hands still free. At that point, the police officer went for his gun, drew his gun," said Harris, adding that Blake fell toward the officer as he was shot. "I didn't hear him (the officer) say anything, ask to stop or nothing. He shot, kept shooting as the guy was falling. Even when the guy was on the ground, he was still shooting."

It seems like the incident would have occurred in direct view of a dashboard camera, had Hampton's car been equipped with one. But, according to the Chron, "no dashboard camera recorded Pate's shooting with footage that would support or contradict the officer's version of events."

Of course, a body camera would have recorded the shooting, too, but HPD wouldn't even start researching body cameras for another two years — far too late for Blake Pate. Even if there was body camera footage for shootings like Pate's, there's no guarantee anyone outside HPD would get to see it. Earlier this month, the Chron reported that transparency advocates are concerned that a recent state law will make body camera footage harder for the public to get ahold of than dash camera footage. 

Still, HPD is moving forward on its body camera rollout, albeit very slowly. In November 2015, after a pretty messy proposal process, the city council finally approved a $3.4 million contract to outfit HPD officers with body cameras. Skillern said HPD expects to start its full department deployment sometime in the spring, and Chief Charles McClelland told the Times that most officers would have body cameras within 18 months.

But as of right now, Skillern said, there is still the same number of officers equipped with body cameras as there were when HPD first deployed its pilot program more than three years ago: 100. It doesn't appear as though the department plans to add any more dash cameras, either. Since HPD has barely begun to distribute body cameras to its more than 5,000 officers, it looks a lot like Houston will remain in the police-video vacuum for quite some time. 

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Leif Reigstad