Houston chief hopes to add video cameras to cops’ standard gear

Posted Friday, Aug. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The chief of the largest police force in Texas has moved to equip all of his officers with body cameras.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland has asked for $8 million to equip 3,500 officers over a three-year period, the Houston Chronicle reported. Recorded encounters between law enforcement officers and residents will improve accountability and transparency, he said.

Since the fatal shooting in Ferguson, Mo., of an unarmed 18-year-old by a police officer, calls have increased for more police officers in general to wear such cameras.

In Fort Worth, 620 of the department’s more than 1,500 sworn officers are already equipped with body cameras, police Chief Jeff Halstead has said.

McClelland had announced a pilot program last December that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices. That program is still under way and no results have been released.

The cameras are roughly the size of a pager and can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt. The officers would have to manually turn on the devices, which can record for up to four hours.

Capt. Mike Skillern, who leads the department’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said they deliver excellent daytime video and audio but don’t work as well in low light. He said the pilot system has already been used to disprove complaints that officers were abusive during encounters.

“We as a department, and the individual officers, have all been very happy with them,” Skillern said. “It does adjust attitudes on both sides of the camera. When folks realize they’re being videoed, they’re often on their best behavior.”

Mayor Annise Parker said the cameras could be useful.

“I support expanding the pilot project, and we are attempting to identify an appropriate funding source,” Parker said.

The City Council approved a roughly $800 million police department budget this summer that didn’t include the cameras.

Houston Police Officers’ Union officials have expressed concerns that an officer could accidently or intentionally fail to activate a camera.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency.”

“Oftentimes a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said.

“For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer,” Alehashem added.

In Fort Worth, about 200 police officers began wearing body cameras August 2013, and in May, the City Council authorized spending $216,490 for the purchase of 400 more. The video cameras clip to the officers’ collars or glasses.

In the future, cameras will be purchased using revenue raised from the portion of the city’s sales tax that goes to the Crime Control and Prevention District.

In an opinion column published Sunday in the Star-Telegram, Halstead wrote: “In the past five years, the Fort Worth Police Department has become a technology leader with more than 620 ‘on-officer’ video cameras. These cameras, called AXON-Flex, are reliable and technologically advanced devices that will revolutionize policing in America and around the world.

“Fort Worth has more officers wearing these cameras than any other city in the United States, and many cities are just joining this paradigm shift.”

This includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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