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Police consider body cameras

Sheriff, police chief weigh in on national discussion

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Posted: Friday, April 10, 2015 6:35 pm

In light of recent national events, including the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., by police officers, questions have been raised about officers across the country wearing body cameras.

Local law enforcement officials weighed in on the discussion and while they are interested in or already use body cameras, there are a number of issues that are still up in the air regarding the devices.

Odessa Police Chief Tim Burton said he agrees with the idea of body cameras for officers, but also noted privacy boundaries, cost and data collection could be issues.

“It brings up a lot of questions about duration of retention and all those kinds of things for which there is very little guidance in the law,” Burton said. “The question is how to manage that, is it going to be protected and what implications does that have when it is released, and how do we as police officers handle that absent guidance from the legislature?”

Burton said the OPD has looked into body cameras for officers but nothing official has taken place. Yet he also noted the flaws present with the idea.

“This could be a powerful tool if the technology works correctly and if procedure, policy, and legislation are structured in a certain way that the information is handled lawfully and appropriately,” Burton said.

State Rep. Brooks Landgraf said that he is supportive of body cameras but stopped short of saying that he would vote for a bill requiring such technology before some of the key questions are answered.

“Generally speaking I am supportive of law enforcement officers wearing cameras,” Landgraf said. “I do have some concerns about the cost of requiring officers across the state to wear body cameras as well as other issues such as retention policies and the issues of privacy. We should not be tolerant of any type of invasion of privacy that could go along with these cameras.”

Landgraf said there are a number of bills regarding police body cameras that have been filed in the house and the senate during the current legislative session.

Yet he said he remains skeptical that anything will be approved and passed until the key issues are ironed out.

“It is just my guess, but I think because of the large number of questions there still are makes it more unlikely anything will be passed,” Landgraf said.

The Ector County Sheriff’s Office has body cameras already in place for some deputies and Sheriff Mark Donaldson said he’s seen first-hand some of the issues presented by Burton.

Donaldson said the ECSO has cameras, but because of the abuse they take while deputies are doing their job, such as altercations or other physical involvements, they have had technical issues and malfunctions with the units that are in use. 

“They come in handy because if someone makes a complaint we can go back and look at it and see what happened,” Donaldson said. “If there is something there we can see it and that is what they are there for.”

Donaldson noted the ability to review information and the ability to review footage instantly after they respond to a call are the primary benefits of the cameras.

The sheriff also weighed in on the privacy aspect of the cameras and the blurred lines that remain untouched by law makers.

“I am for them,” he said. “But there is quite a controversy going on whether the media will have access to every piece of video we take. How would you feel if a video of you, in a trying situation at your home, was distributed? I definitely disagree with media being able to have access to every piece of video we have.”

Both Burton and Donaldson said that the cameras have little effect on officer privacy and do not hinder an officer’s ability to enforce the law.

Senate Bill 158 was drafted and proposed by State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, which calls for grant funding to provide police departments with body cameras.

To qualify for the grant funding, departments must have guidelines for when cameras are activated, have provisions for data retention and storage, as well as a training program for officers who wear body cameras.

In the bill, police must activate the camera when responding to calls for assistance, traffic stops, during pursuits, arrests, searches, or interrogations, but the devices can be deactivated when speaking to witnesses or victims, according to the bill.

Within the bill is also a clause that states when officers use deadly force the video may not be deleted or be released to the public before an investigation has been completed and that all video must be retained for at least 90 days.

Testimony for the bill was heard by the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 24.

A similar bill has also been filed in the current legislative session by State Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City.

President Barack Obama also proposed three-year, $263 million investment packages that would increase the use of body cameras for police officers.

The investment has the potential to acquire 50,000 body cameras with the benefit “to build and sustain trust between communities and those who serve and protect these communities,” according to a fact sheet from www.whitehouse.gov.

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