Austin police body cameras discussed at public forum


At a forum held Monday by Austin police, residents had plenty of questions about the department’s plans to deploy a body-worn camera program next year.

The questions included concerns about data storage, leaking of sensitive videos and officers who fail to turn on their cameras.

Since City Council approved in September assigning $3 million to the police department’s budget to start a body camera program, police officials have said they wish to deploy 500 cameras by next summer and a total of 1,300 in three years.

Cmdr. Ely Reyes with the police’s technology unit joined Austin police Chief Art Acevedo at the Palmer Event Center and explained the department already started drafting a policy for the use of these cameras based on state law and their existing in-car camera policy. Some of the policy’s highlights so far are:

  • Officers would be asked to verify that their cameras are operational at the beginning of their work shift.
  • Officers should have active cameras when they arrive to all calls of service as well as before and during arrests.
  • Supervisors will conduct monthly audits.
  • Employees should not make personal copies or upload recordings to social media platforms.

 

Austin seems to mostly support the police department’s efforts to equip officers with body-worn cameras. In the 2015 Zandan Poll “Voices of the Austin Community,” 79 percent of participating city residents said police officers should be equipped with body cameras, compared with 9 percent who disagreed.

However, many of the attendees who participated on Monday’s forum questioned whether officers would activate their cameras right away, especially those officers on foot, bike or on a horse who work on Sixth Street where incidents occur within seconds.

Reyes explained that for that reason, the department will likely get a camera that pre-records video and keeps footage starting 30 seconds before the moment when an officer activates the device to capture an incident.

For Jill Baggerman, who lives in East Austin, that wouldn’t be enough. She suggested the cameras record 2 minutes instead of 30 seconds in case officers don’t start recording right away.

“I want to ensure policies protect people as much as they protect police,” Baggerman said.

Much of the discussion focused on what the department’s policy should be and what officers would record, but some residents also had concerns about where and how the video would be stored.

Officials have looked at cameras in the market and drafted a list of the department’s needs, but police officials admitted they are still not sure what portion of the budget will cover the cost of saving and maintaining the video footage.

“The problem for us is that we don’t know how much data storage we are going to need,” Acevedo said.

The department will host another forum with residents in the following months to present the program’s policy and discuss any concerns, officials said.

For Travis Clark, a University of Texas student, the forum helped clear doubts about police and body cameras.

“I felt like this was a bridge between two communities and would hold the officers at a higher standard knowing they are being held accountable,” Clark said.


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