Monday, December 30, 2013

Few Houston cop cars outfitted with cameras

Houston has the lowest proportion of squad cars in their fleet outfitted with dashcams among the largest Texas law enforcement agencies, reported the Houston Chronicle ("HPD lags in dashboard cameras; many shootings not filmed," Dec. 29). Here are the stats for the biggest agencies:
  • Houston Police Department: 3,984 fleet, 199 dash cameras
  • Texas Department of Public Safety: 4,411 fleet, 2,396 dash cameras
  • Austin Police Department: 1,335 fleet, 510 dash cameras
  • El Paso Police Department: 825 fleet, 365 dash cameras
  • Fort Worth Police Department: 1,227 fleet, 326 dash cameras
  • Dallas Police Department: 1,757 fleet, 960 dash cameras
Reported the Chronicle:
Houston police have fewer dashboard cameras than any major Texas law enforcement agency, providing them with little of the recorded evidence that other departments have to determine whether an officer violated procedures or laws. ...

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation showed more than one-fourth of civilians shot by HPD from 2008 to 2012 were unarmed, and apparently none of the 121 shootings in that time frame were captured by dash cameras.

HPD Chief Charles McClelland this month announced a program to test 100 small cameras worn on the front of officers' uniforms, saying this newer technology has made dash cameras obsolete. He did not address the future of HPD's dashboard cameras.
Grits is a fan of dashcams and has long believed that the bodycams HPD will be "testing" should be universally adopted. I don't know whether they'll make dashcams "obsolete" - given how often dashcams conveniently seem to malfunction during critical incidents, personally I'd welcome the redundancy. But the arguments in favor of cameras far outweigh those against them, particularly now that costs have precipitously declined.


Anonymous said...

That body cam test was offered by the manufacturer in October of 2012. The union raised objections. Have those been overcome? It would put a stop to many "tune ups" by HPD officers.

Anonymous said...

Dash cameras are within the price range now that most individuals can afford one if an individual wants one. There is no good reason any new police car should not be equipped with one.

Anonymous said...

I should add that most of the 199 dash cameras mounted in HPD vehicles are dedicated to DWI task force vehicles. The few others are in vehicles that patrol the wealthier parts of the city and the officers who are assigned to patrol those areas are not the ones who have had disciplinary problems in the past. HPD, while a violent and corrupt criminal organization, isn't stupid. They aren't about to place cameras in vehicles which patrol the minority-dominated parts of the city which is also where they assign their most troubled officers. It should also be noted that at any given time some 20% of the cameras are inoperable and in need of repair. Don't look for HPD to ever have cameras on all their officers because the resulting lawsuits would bankrupt the city faster than the HPD pensions.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:18, most of the cameras are installed in those who run traffic most of their shift more than the handful of DWI units. Most of those officers are very grateful to have the cameras because the numbers mentioned in the article stating 90% exonerate the officer are low in Houston. In Houston, the automatic cameras support the officer almost every time, the few times it doesn't actively support them the cameras tend to be neutral in not providing evidence either way.

One of the problems with measuring costs is that the front end is the small portion of the cost. The biggest cost will be the hundreds of man hours needed to review the recordings, even spot checking them will take field supervisors off the streets considering each might have ten officers to review. There are no grants for the city to apply for to handle such a task and most footage that is detrimental to the city could easily find itself missing or corrupted if you believe the reports coming from other cities on their experiences.

Those who rail against more police cameras in public are quietly silent on this type of camera too yet which kind of public camera is going to be used against the general public more; a static mounted camera on a building or one wielded by an officer who may bait a citizen into saying something contrary to their interests? And the reason the union was against the original proposal was because the cameras were not originally going to allow an officer to turn them off when going to the bathroom, hanging our with friends, when they were on their cell phones, and the like.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So which is it, 10:53? A big problem that "most footage that is detrimental to the city could easily find itself missing or corrupted," or a problem that cameras wouldn't "allow an officer to turn them off"? Seems like you want to have it both ways.

John N Florida said...

The only possible problem I see with any of the cameras is the ability of the officer or Command to access and change, delete, or alter the time stamps.

Anonymous said...

Everyone wants to have it both ways; it's human nature. Reports from other major agencies are that most footage contrary to the agency seems to get lost in the shuffle, either from how long it is kept, whether it is corrupted somehow, or whatever. I don't support that happening but if people from other agencies admit this, it limits the cheerleading such a program should get.

As far as an officer's ability to turn them off, I have no issues with them turning it off when using a restroom or engaging in protected speech (like with an attorney or union rep).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:20, so at first you wanted to turn it off for hanging with your friends, talking on the cell phone, etc., but now that someone calls BS you just want to turn it off for "protected speech"? Sounds like excuse making to me.

The issue isn't the video being corrupted or lost, it's that cops turn them off when misconduct occurs in the field. Which is why you can't have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

Grits, I was pointing out a few of the union arguments made for the officer having some control over the devices. I did not say I subscribed to that line of thinking or favored such abilities though I certainly understand their concerns. I do think they should be able to cut off the audio when speaking to one of their attorney's or union representatives, civil service law backing that up in spades for good reason.

And again, if you're going to quote, please include the whole thing rather than mislead: "...most footage that is detrimental to the city could easily find itself missing or corrupted if you believe the reports coming from other cities on their experiences". I have no first hand experience with wearing a body camera nor do I have first hand experience with working at one of those other agencies but I do have contacts who seem to recognize that even dash cameras are no panacea for controlling those officers that violate their oath.

Events often happen very quickly and while your concern is catching those few bad apples, their concern is to stay alive and unhurt in often hostile environments. They might also shy away from having private conversations accessed by others who then use them against the officer, perhaps even whistle blower talk where a supervisor is alerted to being caught by one of his subordinates.

Dash cameras are typically wired to start recording when the emergency equipment is activated but body cameras are a whole different breed with all sorts of interesting policy questions to be ironed out. If someone is truly evil, they will work around the cameras of any sort or even use them to their advantage, some of you equating them to a fix all when they are no such thing.

john said...

Even if they had cameras ON THEM, whatever they already have just doesn't make it to court. They can't FIND it, the film is bad or erased or who knows, etc. It should all be filed and available with a chain of custody, etc.
Film or digital is just as easy to obfuscate as any other evidence. We need live TV watching the lads all the time.
We're in Harris County. It's not for lack of funds they stay unaccountable. Do you recall a few years back when they got caught with the cars uninspected, etc.? THOSE ARE EXACTLY THE CARS TO WHICH THE TRANSPO CODE ALWAYS APPLIED----State & Muni-owned!!
NOW HOUSTON has a TV show showing the fat U.S. Marshals armed like they're going to Afghanistan, chasing down the freeways to herd upon this or that suspected criminal. WHAT CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY FOR FEDERAL POLICE WAS THAT??????
Police states don't need no stinkin' cameras. The MOST people in jail, in the world.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

My concern is not just catching a few bad apples but also providing evidence that avoids he-said she-said situations in court. There are myriad benefits to cameras and many drawbacks to giving the officers control of the on-off switch.

Also, the part you fault me for not quoting is irrelevant to my point (and for that matter, speculative on your part). I know why the departments claim the cameras don't work during critical incidents. I personally believe those are, for the most part, self serving lies. The cameras' failures are too selective to conclude otherwise.

Nobody has said they must wear cameras while talking to their lawyers, union reps, the IAD, etc. - that's a BS red herring. Using that to claim officers should control the on/off switch is a bogus argument. The cameras are worn in the field, not in-house, and even there, there are other ways to handle it. E.g., they could call their supervisor and say "I need to talk to my attorney" and let them shut it off. Or, they can have such conversations on their own time, like most workers have to do when they talk to their lawyers, make personal phone calls, chat up their friends, etc..

Anonymous said...

That's just it, you start off by believing they are engaging in lies rather than start off in a neutral stance. That is common here as a beginning bias on pretty much all topics. My experiences run counter to that but I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to almost everyone and let the facts fall where they may. Short of a comprehensive study on police interactions versus recording failures, you are merely speculating that the failures are too selective as well, any advance in technology has a learning curve and not knowing all the data, you just can't prove your comment.

I am largely in favor of cameras, particularly dash cameras. While other departments conveniently lose critical incident recordings, it is very uncommon in my experience locally, other than when a recording goes beyond a certain amount of time if not requested in a timely fashion (not two months later, not by asking someone who is not in the chain of custody, and not via a means that may not reach the right person (as some lawyers and their minions seem to try all the time). Dash cameras are great because they activate automatically when an officer turns on his emergency equipment; he doesn't have to do it separately when a million things are going through his head like he would with a body camera.

As far as red herring arguments, supporters of cameras have made it crystal clear, time and again, that they want officers to have the cameras running every moment they are on the clock. They never specifically exclude trips to the bathroom either, my point was only to show one of many possible times when an on duty officer should not have a camera running.

That you, out of many, agree there are times the cameras should not be running is a step forward but your proposed solution relies on a mindset that has never been in uniform, one that thinks finding a supervisor at a moment's notice is always easy in a day and age when they are called on to do increasing numbers of tasks away from their troops. Someone needs to be able to control the on/off switches just as someone needs to be able to control the resulting footage post day in the field. Having the officer control the camera makes sense, having him maintain the records as custodian does not make sense.

Try the cameras out with the officer in control of the switch for awhile. If problems develop with selective camera amnesia, figure out a better way but don't assume it before a problem occurs. Cameras prove the official accounts reasonably accurate in almost every case in Houston. I suspect that with body cameras, it might help tidy up some sloppy report writing by those who were marginal to begin with but it won't be a panacea for defendants by any means, that has been proven by other departments.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@9:41, we've already seen these problems occur with officers controlling dashcams, which is why most are now automated to come on with the lights, etc.. That wasn't the case when they first came out but officers wouldn't turn them on or would turn them off selectively, so policies changed. And that was the departments making the switch to limit officers' ability to shut them off, it had nothing to do with me or police critics. There's simply no reason to assume that the same behaviors witnessed with dashcams will magically disappear for bodycams if officers are allowed to control them. We've already seen this movie.

My suggestion re: supervisors responded to your (mostly bogus) issue about talking to your lawyer or union rep, which I assume you don't do all day every day. I don't assume supervisors are always on call but dispatchers pretty much are and one can envision a system where they can turn it off and on remotely for authorized purposes. But letting field officers pick and choose when the camera is running is a recipe for abuse.

You write that "supporters of cameras have made it crystal clear, time and again, that they want officers to have the cameras running every moment they are on the clock," ignoring evidence to the contrary in this very string. As for going to the bathroom, a camera on your shirt pocket isn't going to capture dick pics anyway, so there's an extent to your complaint comes off as just looking for excuses why the officer should control the thing. But either way, that's a soluble problem. There are ways around it without giving the officer complete control of when the camera is filming.

Bean Counter said...

Gentlemen, I think I can shed light on the cameras used locally. HPD originally received a dozen dash cameras as part of a grant from the 100 Club. The request was initiated by the DWI Task Force officers, not their command staff or city officials who repeatedly declined requests to equip their cars with cameras. The idea was for officers to record field sobriety tests on those cameras to expedite processing cases while the suspects were still at their worst.

That was before they used civilians to record the tests after the breathalizer, a practice that was cancelled when the city laid them off. The cameras were not meant to be used to catch suspects errant driving behavior or to catch officers misconduct, merely the tests. As the cameras fell into a state of disrepair, individual officers bought their own cameras because they worked so well, the dept never wanting the cameras until years later.

The department then started up their traffic enforcement unit again and many of the officers asked for cameras. Again, this was because the cameras worked so well as disproving stories told by defendants, though the catch was that the new division would routinely have the officers stop traffic as a large group rather than use the cameras extensively. Part of that was because the supervisors had to review a minimum number of stops for each of their officers in real time, an extensive use of their alloted hours.

This second group, along with the truck enforcement and related groups, all wanted cameras when the city was not interested but they were the pet project for the assistant chief that later became chief so they were given almost everything they wanted. In Houston at least, cameras were always brought in at the request of officers, not management or outside forces until now. In almost no case did the tapes show any misconduct, even minor policy misconduct, which is contrary to the experience of other cities.

The new body cameras being tested are not the final product officers will be wearing either. It is a trial project to work out the logistical bugs only. The concerns raised are valid on both sides but those thinking it will routinely provide evidence of misconduct are mistaken if the past is any guide. Those thinking cameras will protect officers as much as the previous cameras did are also misled, my understanding is that the cameras are just to placate the feds as a showhorse. It's a shame because body cameras have a lot of potential to help officers just as much as the dash versions have done, the experience in Houston far different from other places.

Anonymous said...

Grits, you're speaking in generalities while I'm speaking in specifics. HPD officers have not abused their discretion in any meaningful way when it comes to cameras, dash-mounted or otherwise. If that runs contrary to your local department, a much better paid department at that, so be it. If they start to abuse the cameras like other departments may have, then feel free to change policy as needed but I seriously doubt dispatchers need any more on their plate at this writing and the abuse you focus on is not the norm here.

Bean Counter: Your comments are accurate enough for this discussion. Thank You.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:35, since HPD mostly doesn't use dashcams except, according to Bean Counter, for DWI enforcement, that's pretty weak tea you're offering.

@ Bean Counter: Were HPD officers with the few dashcams in place controlling the on-off switch themselves or were they automatic? If they controlled them, that likely explains why they seldom caught misconduct, "contrary to the experience of other cities."

Bean Counter said...

Grits, the original set of dash cameras were a mish mash of wiring as no funds were given to install them. As I recall, the officers wanted them to be activated as part of the overhead emergency lighting but there was a problem with the Fords or the later Chevys so some were and others weren't. Those dozen cameras formed the basis for HPDs later experience with the 150+ TED cameras. The city could use that many DWI Task Force units alone but manpower just isn't available and never has been, the issue given much media play but little funding when grants dry up.

I do not believe the officers controlling the cameras engaged in selective use of the cameras to edit misconduct. They were under a great deal of scrutiny for all sorts of reasons and gaps in tapes or during traffic stops could get someone kicked out of the group. Later on, as the original supervisors moved on, other issues arose but that was not one of the issues that came up.

When tech services later offered to provide the department with streaming video feeds, it was turned down because it was going to cost a substantially larger amount of money and the tech was unproven, no one wanted to be responsible for the glitches that were going to be part of the process. On a side note, the Task Force did not have to store evidence tapes as they were all handed off to the HCDA. If problems arose with a tape missing when Trichter or someone from the other side of the aisle asked for one, the problem was with ADA handling the case every time.

Contrast that to the TED system which would store tapes for the requisite 90 days unless someone filed the right paperwork out. They started running out of storage room very early on since each vehicle would produce at least one tape a day, only one officer put in charge of them all. I'm in favor of camera systems with streaming tech to a central storage facility that the officers can't turn off, other than to give them control of the audio recording portion. As it stands, I hear that half the officers wearing cameras are acting like they are auditioning for a cable television show narrator spot, perhaps related to that movie that came out last year. Some of them are hilarious.

Houston Cars said...

That is a great idea. Is someone looking for
affordable used cars in houston ?