The transparency that police body cameras were supposed to bring and that the Houston Police Department promised when launching the $8 million program more than a year ago has been more rhetoric than reality.
For starters, the department has failed to follow its written policy to improve accountability in the department.
That policy requires three separate audits of body-camera video that are supposed to include: a monthly supervisor review; a semi-annual review from an independent police oversight board for misconduct and mistakes; and a video quality review from HPD’s technology department.
To date, none of the three audits has been completed, according to HPD Assistant Chief James Jones.
“I think we’ll have that in a week or two, probably two weeks,” Jones said. “They’re not complete, but we are working through them, it’s not like we’re completely ignoring the topic.”
What is being ignored is the public’s trust, according to Houston City Council Member Michael Kubosh. He voted against the body-camera program, criticizing that it was rushed through from the onset.
“We have to have these audits, we have to have these reports, we can’t let this go on without proper oversight,” Kubosh said. “We’ve got to follow through. This is critical.”
The lack of follow-through is also apparent with supposed battery-life problems highlighted by new Chief of Police Art Acevedo. In February, Acevedo froze the deployment of new cameras because, he said, “we are losing confidence” in the cameras.
In an email from Acevedo to the Houston mayor’s office, the chief promised to “have a full report in the next 10 days or so to provide the mayor.”
More than three months later, no such report exists.
“We are compiling the data, we’ll have all the complaints, I think we’ll have a report done,” Assistant Chief Jones said.
Other e-mails obtained by KHOU 11 Investigates indicate contradictory information on the scope of complaints involving battery-life issues.
In a Jan. 28 e-mail to Jones, Acevedo wrote, “(the) problem is a myriad of complaints about battery draining.”
Two days earlier, however, the department’s Chief Technology Officer Carlos Salas wrote the mayor’s office that 45 cameras had been reported with battery problems, only 2.7 percent of the total number deployed. Additionally, the body-camera vendor WatchGuard wrote Acevedo a letter identifying only three bad batteries out of the 1,684 deployed at the time.
“Our team has been analyzing all available data related to HPD camera batteries, which includes studying the internal system log files from numerous HPD cameras,” WatchGuard CEO Robert Vanman said in a Feb. 13 letter to Acevedo. “We determined the root cause for most complaints was usually tied to a failure to fully charge the camera.”
In the letter, WatchGuard asked the department to consider switching to pooled cameras using a “kiosk” checkout system, meaning when officers have extra jobs or overtime, they would dock the camera after their first shift and immediately check out another fully charged camera. The department has since adopted that system at its Clear Lake and Eastside divisions.
As for other transparency issues, major delays persist in releasing body-camera videos to the media and public. Beginning in June 2016, KHOU 11 Investigates requested footage in 75 incidents. It took the department up to six months to locate, retrieve, redact and provide the requested videos.
Jones said that just because a formal audit hasn’t been completed doesn’t mean videos aren’t being reviewed. He said commanders look at the “vast majority” of body-camera footage in use-of-force incidents and internal affairs complaints. He added that the department only receives about 250 internal affairs complaints annually compared to around 1.5 million contacts with the public each year.
“I think from our perspective, we could always do better,” Jones said. “But to say that we’re not being transparent, we have a chief here that transparency is something he deeply believes in.”