HOUSTON – The Houston Police Department is suspending the rollout of its body-camera program due to problems with the cameras.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement the suspension comes due to issues with the cameras’ batteries dying while officers are on patrol.
“We are working with the vendor to make sure the equipment is fully functional,” Turner said in his statement.
Houston’s vendor, Texas-based WatchGuard, strongly denied the company had battery problems.
“The batteries last 10 hours recording all the time, 19 hours on standby mode,” said WatchGuard spokesperson Jamie Carlin. “It has been a very successful deployment and we have met and exceeded the city’s expectations in the contract."
Turner said his office had received e-mails from WatchGuard conceding there were concerns with battery life. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said she was working to make those e-mails available.
The announcement comes four months after a KHOU 11 investigation revealed flaws in the program.
Houston began equipping its officers with body cameras in April 2016 after signing an $8 million contract with WatchGuard. Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo, who inherited the program when he was sworn into the department's top position in November, made it clear he's not happy with the vendor.
There are currently about 2,000 body cameras on the streets, Acevedo said. The chief said those body cameras won't be removed from service, but said there won't be more cameras rolled out during his evaluation of the body-camera program. He didn't say how long his evaluation will take.
"When you have police officers complaining about a system, before you continue down that path, we need to take a pause," Acevedo said.
From his first day on the job, Acevedo promised to make changes to the department’s program.
"I want to make it very clear to our men and women that if they have a critical incident and they don't have that thing on, and without excuse or justification, they're going to have some significant consequences,” Acevedo said in December during his first exclusive interview.
Among the changes the department is looking into, Acevedo said, is automatic activation, which would automatically turn on an officer’s body camera and not rely on the officer to manually activate the camera. Other cities—such as Grand Rapid, Mich., and Dekalb County, Ga.—automatically activate officers’ cameras when lights and sirens are turned on or when officers open their patrol car door.
Acevedo is also re-evaluating other issues, including data storage and retrieval of video.
"We are going to do our due diligence," Acevedo said. "I'm going to do my due diligence to ensure that we have the right system, not just in terms of just the camera, but the right approach for the entire project."
KHOU 11 Investigates' four-part docu-series Transparency found the department’s body-camera program wasn’t living up to the promises made by city and county leaders.
Officials portrayed body cameras as a blueprint to transparency, that the cameras would provide accountability on both sides of the lens. But when a man was fatally shot in a southeast Houston intersection in July 2016, the officers didn’t turn on their body cameras until after the man lay dying in the street. The officers said the man pointed a gun at them, and without the body-camera footage to substantiate those claims, community activists spoke out against the lack of transparency.
Two city council members approved of the Acevedo's move.
"I think a temporary delay is an excellent move by the chief, and I fully support it," said council member Dave Martin.
Martin expressed his concern with the original rollout of the body-camera program, especially that HPD planned to store all the video evidence in-house rather than on a cloud-based server.
Council member Michael Kubosh, who felt the original program was rushed through, said he supports Acevedo's decision.
"I believe (Acevedo) understands what the problem is," Kubosh said. "I believe he will address it. I don't believe he will delay."