The Eyes of Texas: Are Police Body Cameras Inevitable?
At a press conference in late November, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland called universal body cameras on police inevitable. “I think that it’s a matter of time before every law enforcement agency in the United States has body cameras,” Chief McClelland said. The catalyst, he said, was the shooting death of an unarmed teen in Missouri by an officer who went uncharged. “It’s not ‘if’ anymore,” McClelland said. “It’s ‘when.’”
In Texas, that someday is well on its way. Fort Worth police began wearing body cameras three years ago and already have more than 600, the second-most cameras of any force in the nation. But they’ll soon be surpassed by Houston. Impressed with a successful 100-camera pilot program, Chief McClelland announced in August that he was seeking $8 million with which to equip 3,500 Houston officers with body cameras over the next three years. San Antonio has been conducting its own pilot program, and Dallas’ newly elected DA, Susan Hawk, has vowed to use civil forfeiture funds from her office to buy body cameras for Dallas police. In November, the Austin Police Department requested information from city purchasers on the specifics of outfitting their officers with body cameras.
Lawmakers are also getting into the act. One key concern of body cam critics is that law enforcement policies governing them—such as when the devices can be turned off, how the video is stored and who may access it—can vary wildly among departments. So state Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) have pre-filed identical bills that would codify certain body camera policies for any agency that uses state grant money to buy its cameras. Primarily, police would have to turn the camera on for traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits or answers to calls for service. But there’s also plenty in the bills to pacify defenders of law enforcement autonomy. During “non-confrontational” encounters such as witness or victim interviews, the camera could be off. Video of any encounter subject to an investigation—such as in the case of deadly force—couldn’t be released to the public until the investigation is finished. Most interestingly, police officers would be entitled to view all video of an incident before making an official statement about it.
Popular momentum and standardization, however, have little bearing on the central question of body cameras: Do they help? A New York grand jury’s failure to charge an officer who choked an unarmed man to death on camera caused many to despair of video’s value. But the best information available—a multi-source study by the U.S. Justice Department—says yes. Multiple recent empirical studies found that body cameras did have a “civilizing effect,” lowering citizen complaints, police use of force and assaults on officers. If so, that inevitable someday can’t get here fast enough.