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Ahead of 2016 Rollout, APD Holds Forum to Talk Body Cameras

Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and Austin Police Association President Kenneth Casaday speak with state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, right, on Feb. 12, 2015, at the Texas Capitol. West authored the state's body camera regulations in SB 158.

The Austin Police Department plans to buy 500 body cameras for their officers by next fall, and a meeting last night at the Palmer Events Center laid out the department’s plan for the $3 million project.

Those in attendance last night questioned whether the proposed body camera policy would hold police more accountable.

Kiersten Legee has been curious about body cameras ever since she started taking classes as part of APD’s citizen police academy. She believes the footage from the cameras will protect officers.

“The cameras will show the truth,” Legee said. “And you can’t lie about what’s on the camera. So I think it’s a great idea. It protects them and their family.”

Richard Diaz says he sees the body cameras as insurance for citizens – those being assisted or stopped by police – but he still has questions.

“Hopefully, they’d be protecting me, [But] I want to know when, how,” Diaz said. “I want to know where they’re being purchased, who they’re being purchased from.”

The department plans to purchase the cameras by the end of the 2016 fiscal year and to distribute them first to cops working downtown and in west central Austin. Over the next three years, the plan is for the department to purchase and distribute 1500 body cameras. 

A request for proposals will be sent out this month, and then the department will see what its camera options are. They’re looking for cameras that turn on when an officer opens his car door. If an officer’s on foot, he or she will be expected to turn on the camera before getting involved in a situation.

What many did want to know was how the policy would ensure these cameras keep officers accountable and when exactly an officer could turn a camera off.

“They can only turn it off once all law enforcement action is concluded,” said APD Commander Eli Reyes. “Like, if it’s a crash and they’ve interviewed everyone and they’re just waiting for a tow truck and no more law enforcement action is likely to occur, then they can turn it off in that instance.”

Reyes said if someone’s being arrested, the camera would stay on until that person is booked into jail. Some of these regulations are still up for debate, but one aspect of the regulations was codified by state lawmakers this legislative session.

Senate Bill 158 set the minimum retention period for footage at 90 days, though the footage can be kept for a longer period of time, or indefinitely, if it’s involved in an ongoing investigation. The video would be archived permanently if it’s used as evidence in a case involving use of force.

APD will host another public forum once it’s finalized its body camera policy. Yesterday, the department released a list of frequently asked questions, which we’ve included below:

What is a body camera? A small, battery-powered camera worn by police officers on their uniform that captures interactions with the public from the police officers point of view.

Why is the Austin Police Department proposing to have their officers use body cameras? The Austin Police department is implementing a body-worn camera program with the intent of creating greater transparency and accountability in its contacts with the public.

Are there any state laws that govern body cameras? Yes. Sec. 1 Chapter 1701, Occupations Code, Subchapter N, Body Worn Camera Program

Will the Austin Police Department have a policy governing the use of body cameras? Yes. The policy is currently under review and in draft form.

When will police officers be recording with their body cameras? Police officers will activate their body camera whenever they respond to calls for service or have citizen contacts where they anticipate taking law enforcement action.

How will I know if I am being recorded? Will the body camera have a flashing light or other indicator that it is recording? For officer safety concerns, the body camera will not have a flashing light or other indicator that it is recording. The best rule of thumb is to assume that the officer is always recording while taking law enforcement action.

Does an officer have to stop recording if I ask him/her to? No. A police officer is not required to stop recording upon request.

Are there places where officers cannot use their body cameras? Typically officers will not record in places where an expectation of privacy exists, such as restrooms — unless there’s reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed or the recording of the location is material to a criminal investigation.

What is the process for obtaining a copy of a body camera video? Open Record Requests for body camera videos may be submitted to the Austin Police Department’s Central Records Division ( Media requests should be sent to Per state law, a person requesting a video needs the date and approximate time of the recording, the specific location where the recording occurred, and the name of one or more of the people on the recording. There are additional requirements for recordings made in a private space, such as a private residence. To obtain private residence recordings the requestor will need to have written permission from the person(s) captured on the recording.

Do body cameras record both audio and video? Yes.

Will the camera have night vision or infrared capability? No. The camera will be able to record in low light conditions comparable to what the human eye can see.

Where will the video be stored? The video will be stored on secure servers in compliance with federal Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) standards. These storage locations may either be a local server storage or a cloud based storage location.

How long will video be kept? All video will be kept for a minimum of 90 days, but will be maintained longer depending on the type of incident in compliance with state record retention laws.

How can I know if a video has been altered? Police officers will not be able to alter or delete original videos. The system will be designed with security “hash tags” that will mark the original videos, so that any alteration can be identified.

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