FAQ: Houston's body-camera program

A four-month investigation reveals Houston's $8 million police body-camera program is falling short of its promise.

The 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. A four-month investigation into the program revealed it's not living up to its promise.

Are all of HPD’s officers wearing body cameras?

Not yet.

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 under the following deployment schedule:

 

Do HPD’s body cameras record an officer’s entire shift?

No.

Under Texas Senate Bill 158, which became law Sept. 1, 2015, no body-camera policy may require a peace officer to keep a body camera activated for an entire shift.

Police union officials argue that officers reserve the right to privacy in certain situations, such as bathroom breaks, meal breaks, locker room settings and personal conversations.

 

 

When are HPD officers supposed to turn on and off their cameras?

According to HPD’s body-worn camera policy, “officers shall activate their BWC prior to conducting any of the following law enforcement activities” (the following is a non-exhaustive list):

  • Arriving on scene to any call of service.
  • Self-initiating any law enforcement activity.
  • Initiating a traffic or pedestrian stop.
  • Responding to a citizen who flags them down.
  • Detaining, arresting, or attempting to arrest a person.
  • Conducting and search, including those of people, vehicles, building, and places.
  • Transporting any person from one location to another, including prisoners and passengers.
  • Interviewing witnesses and complainants.
  • Engaging in any vehicular or foot pursuit.

The policy states that officers are not required to record conversations with confidential informants or certain witnesses and complainants, such as victims of a sexual assault.

In most circumstances, an officer’s body camera may be deactivated in the following circumstances:

  • All arrests have been made and arrestees have been transported from the scene and accepted by jail personnel, or placed in a holding cell;
  • All witnesses and victims have been interviewed; and
  • All contacts with the public on the scene are completed.

Who is watching to make sure HPD officers use their cameras correctly?

Supervisors are required to conduct monthly audits using a computer program to generate a list of randomly selected videos for review, according to HPD’s body-camera policy.

Using Texas open records laws, KHOU asked HPD for electronic copies of these audits. HPD said “there are no responsive documents.”

 

 

What happens when an HPD officer does not or cannot press record?

There may incidents where an officer must ensure his safety or the safety of others before activating the body camera, according to HPD policy.

HPD cameras are equipped with a pre-record function, which captures video prior to the officer pressing record. Houston police initially configured cameras with a 30-second pre-record setting. On Sept. 26, 2016, Acting Chief of Police Martha Montalvo increased that pre-record time to two minutes.

However, HPD has not chosen to activate another safeguard that was offered by its vendor at no extra cost called Record-After-the-Fact (RATF). This allows for continuous background recording and the ability to retrieve events hours before.

Where is all of this video evidence stored?

Body-worn camera evidence is stored in-house on HPD’s servers and can only be accessed by authorized parties through their video-evidence-management system.

However, 34 other major cities use a private vendor to store body camera videos in the cloud.

How can you request your own video evidence?

If you are a defendant in a criminal case, your attorney can obtain the video from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office at a pretrial hearing.

If you are not a defendant in a case, you can request the footage through Houston Police Department’s Open Records Unit. However, the case in question must be disposed -- with a conviction -- for you to receive a DVD of the footage.

To request footage of an incident in which you are not the defendant, email HPD.OpenRecords@HoustonPolice.Org with the following information:

  • The date and time of the recording
  • The precise location (address) of the recording
  • The name of at least one person in the recording

 

I support the use of body cameras and want city officials to get it right. What can I do?

Write your Houston city council member below to serve as an advocate for change and to provide more oversight to the $8 million program.

MOBILE APP USERS: Tap here to sign the call to action

Transparency

Have more questions? Submit them to transparency@khou.com.


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