Civil rights advocates worry interpretation of a 2015 body camera law could help cops avoid prosecution as much as it ensures police accountability.
The senator who drafted the sweeping-but-little-noticed body camera law that the Texas Legislature passed in 2015 called his bill a blueprint for other states wanting to establish baseline standards and help fund police departments that hadn’t yet adopted the technology. But one vaguely worded line in the law also gave Texas’ body cam-wearing cops this assurance: if they ever shoot someone, they get to review their own footage before answering any questions about the incident.
At least that’s how two of the largest Texas police departments, San Antonio and Houston, interpret it. Thanks to the law’s vague wording, Dallas police take the policy even further, letting cops who shoot people review footage taken from every officer on scene before they give a statement.
The discrepancy highlights an unexpected downside for police reformers championing body cams, which, depending on how departments use them, could actually help cops avoid accountability. Civil rights groups like the ACLU argue that letting officers review any body cam footage before investigators even ask them what happened amounts to “poor investigative practice” that departments would never use on other suspects. Some fear the policy lets cops get their story straight about a police shooting before putting anything on record.
On September 8, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, whose office is currently prosecuting two cops for on-duty killings captured by body cam this year, sent a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton asking how far the law really goes.
In her letter, Johnson says she agrees with the policy most of her local police departments have adopted, which lets officers who shoot a person review their own body cam footage before giving a statement to criminal or internal affairs investigators. Unlike the ACLU, she calls that “a legitimate and fair memory enhancement tool.” Still, Johnson says other departments allow the officer who pulled the trigger, as well as “any other officer(s) present at some point” during an incident, to review everyone else’s footage before any of them give statements. Basically, everyone gets to see everything before any of them are asked to say anything.
Johnson’s letter to Paxton says this creates a clear “dilemma” for, say, prosecutors investigating police shootings. Cops who pull the trigger may see footage of things they didn’t witness firsthand before figuring out what to tell officials. Other officers get to see what everyone else saw before they go on record. Johnson said that “can result in, or at least the claim of, embellishment of individual statements based” on events an officer saw but didn’t personally experience. “Our concern is that this practice, if mandated, may actually detract from the officer’s credibility when testifying,” she writes.
While Johnson’s letter doesn’t name the department at the root of her inquiry, her first assistant DA, Mike Snipes, told the Observer that the Dallas Police Department raised the issue with their office. “Their policy is that officers get to look at everybody’s cameras,” he said. Snipes, who has called body cameras a “game changer” for investigating police shootings, insisted the request for an AG opinion isn’t specifically connected to either police shooting case his office is currently prosecuting, one of which involved a DPD officer. According to a Texas Tribune database, DPD officers fired their guns at people more than 100 times from 2010 to 2015.
DPD hasn’t responded to the Observer’s questions about its body cam policy.
Senator Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, authored and championed the body cam bill, known as Senate Bill 158, at the Texas Legislature, where it faced little opposition, though critics would later chastise the measure for effectively blocking the release of pretty much the most important body cam footage. Kelvin Bass, West’s legislative aide who worked on the measure, said the office leaned heavily on a 2014 report on body cameras by the Police Executive Research Forum, an influential law enforcement think tank, and the U.S. Department of Justice when drafting the law. “For body cams, that was kind of the bible at the time, one of the most comprehensive things we could find on the topic,” Bass told the Observer.
Even that report, which recommended letting officers review their body cam video before making a statement, conceded that “there is some question” among police departments about whether that’s the right choice. As the ACLU points out, cities like Oakland prohibit officers from reviewing video before giving statements in serious use of force investigations, including shootings. During the 2015 legislative session, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged departments to prohibit officers from reviewing body cam footage before filing their initial reports.
“What the law allows is already problematic,” argues Daryl Washington, a civil rights attorney representing the family of Genevive Dawes, who in January was shot and killed by a body cam-wearing DPD officer who prosecutors have since charged with aggravated assault. “It gives an officer and his attorney the ability to review the evidence before they put anything on the record. They get to start tailoring their responses in line with the video evidence right off the bat.”
The AG’s office hasn’t yet issued an opinion on whether the 2015 law can be interpreted to allow Texas cops to review body camera footage from every officer on scene before making a report; per the agency’s website, that usually takes about 180 days. West’s office says the senator agrees with the Dallas County DA’s position that police should only be able to review their own footage prior to giving a statement. What Paxton decides will likely determine how departments across the state interpret the law.
Washington, the attorney, said he wasn’t aware Dallas police under investigation have access to other officers’ footage before answering basic questions about a shooting. If the AG sides with DPD’s reading of the law, Washington says, “That’s just one more thing in the system designed to protect the police as opposed to finding the truth.”