Houston bodycam program under scrutiny

The Houston area has an opportunity to become advocates for more effective body cameras to protect both the citizens and the police officers. Body cameras have come to symbolize increased accountability and transparency. However, after several months of investigation, a team of reporters from KHOU-TV, led by Jeremy Rogalski, unveiled findings that indicate the majority of Houston police are not wearing body cams, and those that are wearing the cameras are not turning them on. The team also found that lack of oversight and accountability is almost non-existent.

In an effort to educate the African-American community, KHOU-TV and Community of Faith leader Bishop James Dixon hosted a meeting to review segments of the Ch. 11 docu-series “Transparency: Body Cameras.”  Several elected officials attended, including city councilmembers Michael Kubosh and Brenda Stardig, State Senator John Whitmire and Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzales.

“Public safety is all of our concerns…without it, we can’t feel safe or be safe. All of us are on the same side. This is an honest discussion and dialogue on a subject that is bigger than body cameras,” stated Bishop Dixon.

Rogalski says the investigative project was important because of the current climate.

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation when it comes to police-community relations, and body cameras can foster accountability on both sides of the lens. But true transparency is about much more than just outfitting a cop with a camera. This docu-series shows how the Houston Police body worn camera program has fallen short of its promise. The department is not checking up on officers to see if they’re recording when it counts. The department has struggled to get video evidence to prosecutors in time for court. And the department is woefully behind on releasing body camera videos to the public–taking months to do so. In short, this investigation reveals that ‘transparency’ has become more a city hall buzzword than benchmark for the truth.”

In 2013, Houston launched a body camera pilot program under Police Chief Charles McClelland.  Last year, Houston City Council approved $8 million to implement a body-camera program for police to provide more transparency of interactions between officers and the community.  In April 2016, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner deployed the first distribution of 200 body cameras to officers at central command.  As of Sept. 21, 2016, Houston police issued body cameras to 856 officers. By March 2018, HPD plans to assign more than 4,100 officers with cameras.

During the Summer of 2016, the shooting death of Alva Braziel by Houston Police triggered additional scrutiny of the body camera program.  Evidence revealed the shooting was not caught on tape because the officer wearing a bodycam did not turn it on until after the shooting, which showed a gun next to the body.

Councilman Kubosh said, “It’s an insult to the public. This is a game changer in our city, if we don’t have confidence in our system.” Both Kubosh and Stardig stressed only Mayor Sylvester Turner could get this item placed on the agenda.

The fact that officers have to turn the cameras on has caused some concern.  The docu-series reported that originally HPD had not activated the auto record function on the camera but eventually set up the standard: 30 seconds most police forces across the country were using prior to turning the camera on. Since the shooting death of Braziel, Houston has implemented a two-minutes auto-record policy on body cameras prior to pressing the on button.

In response to the concerns raised regarding the body cameras, Mayor Turner’s Communication director Janice Evans issued this statement, “The mayor has shown a willingness to revise policies. For instance, since he took office, we have increased the buffering time for the body worn cameras from 30 seconds to two minutes, allowing for a longer look back period. This change was a direct result of the shooting of Alva Braziel last summer. We will continue to be open to the possibility of other changes that are in line with best practices and our desire for open and transparent law enforcement.”

The KHOU docu-series also explored best practices related to body camera use in other cities such as Austin, TX with the automatic activation of the camera when you exit the car; and frequent auditing procedures used by Ft. Worth, TX, New Orleans, LA and Denver, CO. to evaluate if the cameras are being used properly.

The ultimate goal of the KHOU project is to get people to act on this issue and let their voice be heard, according to Rogalski.

“We hope it will open the eyes of city leaders and be a catalyst for change. It’s why we are offering a Call-to-Action on BodycamTransparency.com, where citizens can demand more transparency with HPD’s program,” stated Rogalski. “We will take those petitions straight to city hall and hope the mayor will read them, listen to the people, and take action.”

Read more on police “transparency” here”

http://www.khou.com/local/investigative/bodycamtransparency