Many Tarrant County cities are adding body cameras to their police forces, and others are exploring their options following officer-involved shootings nationwide that have drawn scrutiny and criticism.
Many of the incidents, including the fatal shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Christian Taylor in Arlington, involved officers who were not wearing body cameras and left many questions unanswered.
Some cities including Fort Worth and Mansfield already have officers deployed with body cameras, but others such as Arlington and Southlake will begin using them this fiscal year. And some local departments are seeking grants and checking out vendors for the future use of the devices.
Body- and dashboard-mounted cameras have gained widespread acceptance from both law enforcement agencies and the public, with many people saying the devices can provide a new layer of transparency. Many point to the dash-cam videotape of the questionable arrest of Sandra Bland in Waller County in July as an example of their importance.
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“It’s the wave of the future,” said Sgt. David Foreman, a Weatherford police spokesman. “Most people see it as a great tool.”
But others who have questioned police policies said it’s critical that officers who intentionally turn off their cameras be punished.
Amateur videos of many officer-involved deaths — including a police shooting in North Charleston, S.C., in which the officer was indicted on a murder charge — have gone viral on social media and served as the foundation for the need of body cameras. In some instances, the amateur videos have contradicted police accounts of such incidents.
And the public expects video now. Even with the prosecutors, one of the first things they ask is, is there any video.
Jeff Garwacki, Fort Worth police spokesman
“The days when reporters have to wait for the police to tell the story after they have all the facts in are over,” said Bill Switzer, video project manager for Cop Trax of Plano, which that markets its own brand of body cameras to law enforcement agencies. “By the time you know about the story there may be 15 versions of the video already uploaded to YouTube. There is already a story out there and every day you don’t respond it grows.”
Behind the urging of President Barack Obama, the Justice Department awarded more than $23 million to 73 law enforcement agencies in September to start or augment a body camera program. That money was the first installment in a federal initiative to equip 50,000 officers with the devices within three years. A new Texas law, SB158, that set aside $10 million in grant awards for police body camera purchases, took effect on Sept. 1.
State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, author of the bill, said that during the next two years he wants to monitor how fast the money is spent and then explore replenishing the fund when state lawmakers meet again in 2017.
The U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than $23 million to 73 law enforcement agencies in September to start or augment a body camera program
“There appears to be a great deal of mistrust based on news reports,” West said. “In some segments of the community, there is mistrust. I hear from them every day. People ask me what do we tell our sons about the police. Most police officers do their jobs. But there are a few who don’t.”
More than 500 worn in Fort Worth
Fort Worth adopted the technology early, implementing a volunteer-based program in 2010 and expanding the program every year, said Sgt. Scott Sikes, who turned over running the Fort Worth program to officer Jeff Garwacki in October. In March, the City Council entered into a five-year contract with Taser International at a cost of $2.7 million to supply more officers with the Axon Flex body camera system.
As the contract progresses toward its midpoint, and again at its end, Fort Worth will have an opportunity to trade out its old equipment for newer models that Taser might offer, Sikes said. The cameras cost a little less than $700 per unit, but most of the costs to the city are for storing data, according to purchase order and contract documents obtained from city government officials.
Fort Worth has outfitted 530 officers with body cameras and anticipates adding 200 more during the coming budget cycle, Sikes said. As of last week, Fort Worth employed 1,589 sworn officers, said Cpl. Tracey Knight, a police spokeswoman.
Sikes said there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that body cameras help clear up citizen complaints against police officers and research in other cities bears this out. Also, behavior on the citizen side of the camera seems to improve when people are told they are being recorded, he said.
530 Fort Worth officers are equipped with body cameras.
“I’ve had several instances where the person being recorded is getting loud and shouting at the officer and you can see their behavior step down when the officer says, ‘I’m recording this,’ ” Sikes said.
Fort Worth’s videos are stored on evidence.com, a cloud-based system, Sikes said. Officers upload the videos through a port that links directly to the system, he said. Officers cannot tamper, delete or edit the video, and Taser technicians do not have access to the footage, Sikes said.
A 256-bit encryption protocol, the same type used by banks, protects the videos as they are uploaded, Sikes said. Right now, the department has about 150,000 active videos, and each 30-minute video takes up about 450 bytes of memory.
“So a few take up a lot of space,” Sikes said.
Officers using the body cameras are also issued a phone-shaped tablet they can use to categorize the footage as evidence, administrative or something else, Sikes said. Evidence and administrative footage is retained for two years, and other categories can be purged after 180 days, he said.
Sikes said police policy allows officers to use their discretion deciding when to activate or deactivate their body camera.
Former Police Chief Jeff Halstead has said that in two instances, officers’ jobs have been saved because of the recordings. In one instance, a vehicle occupant was clearly seen assaulting officers, Halstead said. Because officers were within inches instead of 80 feet away, the footage clearly depicted what occurred in that vehicle, Halstead said.
Police say that no officer has ever been disciplined for deactivating a body camera when it was supposed to be on.
“If we have a change in policy that mandates recording, and that policy is violated, the discipline can range from an informal counseling from the officer’s supervisor to suspension without pay,” Sikes said.
‘Our video completes the package’
In Denton, where about 40 patrol and traffic officers wear the technology, a police-worn body camera video was instrumental in defusing unrest caused by a public video made available on the Internet, police spokesman Ryan Grelle said.
The Denton County NAACP had planned to protest after the amateur video, which showed a woman being restrained by police and a man shocked with a Taser, was posted on Twitter. The police officers were white and the woman and man, Marcus Coleman, were African-American.
The witness video lasted about 30 seconds and showed the officer saying “get back” three times, Grelle said. The police video showed the suspect pushing past the officer and showed the officer saying “get back” many more times, Grelle said.
Coleman, who was charged with interfering with a public duty, a Class B misdemeanor, is awaiting a decision by the Denton County district attorney’s office on whether his case will be prosecuted, Grelle said. The woman was not charged, Grelle said.
“In the witness video you don’t get the full aspect of what happened,” Grelle said. “Our video completes the package.”
Two high-profile police shootings involving officers in Arlington and Grapevine, which do not provide body cameras, sparked protests and criticism.
In February, a police pursuit that began in Grapevine ended in Euless with Grapevine officer Robert Clark fatally shooting Rubén Garcia Villalpando, a Mexican national, on Feb. 20.
Dash-cam video shows Garcia, who was drunk, walking toward Clark, with Clark repeatedly yelling at him to stop. The video did not capture the shooting, and Garcia’s relatives and friends insist his death was not necessary.
Protesters appeared before the Grapevine City Council, and Garcia’s family has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the city, Police Chief Eddie Salame and Clark.
A Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict Clark.
$50,000 estimated cost of outfitting all 92 sworn officers of the Euless Police Department with body cameras.
Grapevine bought enough cameras in March to outfit about 50 officers with plans to get more, said Sgt. Robert Eberling, a police spokesman. Officers are required to activate the cameras during public contact, and those who deactivate their cameras without good reason can be terminated.
In August in Arlington, a police-worn body camera may have also provided some crucial details in the shooting of Christian Taylor, an unarmed 19-year-old African-American who broke into a car dealership on Aug. 7 and caused significant damage.
Taylor, who had taken the synthetic drug 25I-NBOMe, called N-bomb on the street, and used marijuana before breaking into the dealership, was shot four times by rookie police officer Brad Miller, 49. Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson fired Miller on Aug. 11, saying the officer had “exercised poor judgment.”
The case drew national attention and sparked a debate on Twitter, including comments from tennis star Serena Williams’ account.
“Really??????!!!!!!!!!!? are we all sleeping and this is one gigantic bad nightmare? #ChristianTaylor how many hashtags now?” @serenawilliams tweeted.
Arlington police have turned the case over to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
Determining the value
Arlington’s body camera initiative was under discussion long before the shooting of Taylor, though Taylor’s father, Adrian Taylor, has said his son’s death has certainly intensified the debate over the devices in Arlington.
Arlington has joined with the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank based in Washington, D.C., to conduct a six-month study to determine whether body cameras will actually increase the public’s trust of police.
The study will require some officers to receive body cameras while others will not get them, said Chuck Wexler, the organization’s executive director.
“We just don’t know what impact body cameras will have,” Wexler said. “When you introduce a body camera program there are expectations that are created. Some expectations will not be met.”
We just don’t know what impact body cameras will have.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Arlington police declined a request to be interviewed, but the department plans to distribute 50 to 75 body cameras this month to officers working all shifts, according to a department fact sheet.
In addition to determining whether body worn cameras increase public trust, the department will try to figure out which cameras work best in the field.
During a June 16 staff report to the Arlington City Council, Chief Johnson said it will be difficult to measure the movement of public trust based on a technology deployment.
“So the question is, Of all the strategic challenges that we have in the department, is that $2.5 million or so the best use of public dollars?” Johnson told the council.
‘Public expects video now’
A list of the benefits of body cameras outlined in a white paper released in 2014 by the U.S. Office of Justice Policy Diagnostic Center include increased transparency and citizen views of police legitimacy, improved behavior among officers and citizens, expedited resolution of citizen complaints and lawsuits, and improved evidence for arrest and prosecution.
The white paper also says police departments should be cautious given the lack of research.
Sikes, in Fort Worth, said he has not seen “many negatives at all.”
“It takes all the emotion out of it,” Sikes said. “It’s a recording from an impartial perspective.”
A Denver-based study on body cameras released this year found that more than half of the use-of-force incidents that took place in the project area were not captured on video.
Reasons for not capturing video included cameras getting stuck under shirt collars, being switched off during a struggle or simply not being turned on, said Nicholas Mitchell, an independent monitor for Denver.
Denver’s officers wear Axon Flex body cameras, the same as in Fort Worth.
Fort Worth police have not measured how many of their videos are producing footage that documents incidents and are only beginning to start measuring the effectiveness of the devices, police said.
But the miscues in Denver would almost certainly be seen in Fort Worth, authorities said.
“Sometimes they do malfunction just like everything else on our belt,” said Garwacki, a Fort Worth police spokesman. “Sometimes the battery goes dead and sometimes it’s not pointed in the right direction to capture everything we want to see. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the older guys on the force in the habit of turning it on.”
But, Garwacki said, just like the dash cameras and computers when they were introduced to law enforcement, it will take some time for everyone to catch up with the technology.
“It’s one of the better tools we have,” he said. “There has not been an incident caught on camera that we’ve been sued over. And the public expects video now. Even with the prosecutors, one of the first things they ask is, Is there any video?”