Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Experts: Texas' bodycam law limits cities' ability to adopt best practices

Texas' 2015 law governing what must be included in law enforcement agencies' body-worn camera policies hampers local agencies and is "among the worst in the country," according to an expert who evaluated policies in 75 U.S. cities.

Of the six Lone Star State cities included in the policy scorecard, released Tuesday by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, all failed to meet best practices - as defined by a coalition of civil rights, privacy and media organizations - in at least four of the eight evaluation categories.

The law, negotiated for weeks and passed in 2015, like a similar one passed this year in Florida, "binds the hands of police officers in that state," said Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, on a conference call with reporters. "Even if departments want to do better, they can't because of state law."

Legislators, in adopting the state law, required agencies with body-worn camera policies to have rules that mimic the legislation. Those agencies were then able to apply for the $10 million in state grants earmarked to help departments pay for their cameras.

Yu and his fellow researchers - including former Vanita Gupta, former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Obama Administration - are particularly troubled by provisions of the Texas law that govern when officers may see footage of incidents they are involved in, and when body-worn camera footage is released to the public. Some social researchers, including Yu, believe that viewing footage prior to providing a report can affect memories, either consciously or unconsciously.

Only 13 of the 75 departments studied require officers to give statements from incidents before viewing footage, a process that Yu and Gupta call "clean reporting." All of the Texas departments included in the study were among the 50 departments that give officers unrestricted access to the footage.

Texas' law requires that agencies' policies include:

which Yu said can distort evidence. Clean reporting "captures the officer's independent perspective," Yu said.

Public access to footage from body-worn cameras is limited by Texas law to incidents that are no longer under investigation, and requestors must provide specific information about the incident in order to even get their foot in the transparency door. The law also allows the release of footage if the agency determines that releasing it "furthers a law enforcement purpose."

When asked to explain the variation in scores received by Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth police departments, Gupta noted that "policing is inherently local," and it's possible to have "police departments that are right next to each other with very different approaches." The hope is that those with best practices lift up the others, Gupta said, but added that that amount of flexibility "remains an issue in places where there are state laws restricting it."

The new scorecard is an update to a Nov. 2015 body-worn camera policy scorecard, and is accompanied by an Upturn/The Leadership Conference report titled, "The Illusion of Accuracy.


Lee said...

I thought the point of the cameras were to increase transparency?

Anonymous said...

"Some social researchers, including Yu, believe that viewing footage prior to providing a report can affect memories, either consciously or unconsciously..."

Clean reporting "captures the officer's independent perspective," Yu said.

With video footage, why would they need to rely on memory (which can be distorted)? If anything, an officer's "independent perspective" can be warped/changed/forgotten, and thus unreliable.

I'm not convinced that Harlan Yu and his colleagues have a solid argument.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Because what they're recounting is their decision making process, 2:17, and if their decisions were made based on misperceptions, seeing the video will "correct" them, cause them to change their story, and therefore prevent investigators from discovering the officer's true mindset during the experience.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't "best practices" be the "truth of events"?

What's the big deal in the cop changing his/her mind after the incident, after they've viewed the video? Isn't the purpose of the body cams to get to the truth rather than rely on someone's interpretation (or bias) of events? Get the correct story to the prosecutor, to the jury.

So if a cop thinks a suspect is committing a crime (say, by resisting arrest), but the body cam footage demonstrates that the suspect was not (say, by being calm and compliant), are you saying the cop gets the benefit of doubt because this is "best practice"?? The cop's mindset is correct regardless of the video footage ?? I can't imagine a prosecutor pursing a case because a cop's misconceptions was demonstrated to be wrong by video evidence.

Save the taxpayer time and money by getting the truth from video rather that a cop's belief in what happened. Label the cop's misled "mindset" as a learning tool for the cop. Maybe the cop learns something from viewing his/her errors.

Unless you mean that the investigator's purpose is to find evidence for prosecution for cop misconduct which can be determined by "mindset". ??

Anonymous said...

If I'm arrested for stealing a car (because of video), but my story is that I was just borrowing the car and I was going to return it (because that's my mindset), do I get the benefit of doubt? The video doesn't accurately portray my true intentions.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So 4:27, shouldn't you as a defendant get to review the video 48 hours before you're interviewed by police, just to get your story straight? If there's such a great benefit from accuracy, as you wrote at 4:22, from letting cops accused of misconduct view the video and other evidence before they're questioned, surely the same benefit from accuracy would be accrued by giving the same opportunity to criminal defendants! Whatever argument you have against doing that, those are the same argument against letting cops have that privilege.

Anonymous said...

The line of thinking that video can capture a mindset seems to be a wild stretch of the imagination to me too, I'd rather expand access to video footage than to limit it further for cops. Letting the cop watch the video before making his formal written report simply allows for a more accurate version of what happened, as others have pointed out, the small number of aggressive reformers appear to want to play a game of "gotcha" with the cop instead of looking at the big picture. I can see where in cases of alleged cop misconduct such an approach might yield better results if the desire is to convict the cop but for the most part, why not use the tool of a body camera as it was sold to police departments all across the country to provide more accurate accounts of what the cop probably saw (the cameras face forward from chest level for the most part, cops can more readily turn their heads a wider degree). To specifically eliminate that use of such cameras in order to focus on catching misconduct or modify behavior seems wrongheaded, especially when we still see ample examples of cops providing alternative versions to events than what the cameras capture.

So rather than limit cop access to footage, I'd rather reformists focus on expanding who and when the footage can be seen by others. Does that mean anyone charged with a crime will get to see whatever footage and other evidence cops have against them before a formal statement has to be given, probably not, but it's not such a bad idea for the footage to be made available well before the trial if someone is charged. If the material is so damning then it's not going to matter though experience shows the footage is usually underwhelming at best, not very persuasive at all.

Anonymous said...

Grits, without splitting hairs too finely, the difference for most cases is that the cop reviewed footage being used to provide a more technically accurate original police report is not the same as a forced statement of personal interest tied to a misconduct claim. I doubt it would ever happen but there might be more benefit to letting a suspect (cop or routine person of interest) see the video before they give a statement than withholding the video from all parties. There will still be people trying to generate a false set of facts off the video they see, just how often is video the sole determining evidence for most crimes, not very common according to existing reports so let them all eat cake and watch their exploits before giving statements.

Anonymous said...


Gritsforbreakfast said...

@6:51, bodycams were sold as police accountability mechanisms, not "to provide more accurate accounts of what the cop probably saw." That's revisionist history, trying to downplay the accountability aspects of why they were deployed. The debates that spurred the rise of bodycams were not about accuracy of police reports. That's just a misrepresentation.

If everybody - cops and citizens - get to see video and evidence bf they're questioned, great! If it's one-sided, it's inappropriate and not justified.

Anonymous said...

I as a citizen don't have to submit to an interview as I'm not compelled/ordered to like an officer. Officers can see dash cams and have been able to view them for decades. I have no problem with the same on body cams.

Anonymous said...

Grits, the camera manufacturers sold the camera in different ways to different audiences. You're known as a police reformist so of course you were sold on one narrative while police departments and municipalities were sold on the devices as evidence gathering tools among other things. One look at some of the manufacturers websites supports this contention, major headers directed at both evidence collection capabilities as well as others directed at accountability measures.

Anonymous said...

I read the supporting material and agree with some of the others here that accuracy in reporting should require officers review videos before making their reports. If suspected criminals are wearing their own body cameras, they can review their own videos before making a statement. Is everyone happy now?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nope, 10:37, cops get to review ALL the evidence against them, not just body cam footage. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. So pick: Should everyone get to see the evidence against them before they're questioned, or no one?

@6:29, ALL the national press, and local press in TX cities that adopted them, FTM, focused on accountability, not evidence. You may or may not be dissembling, but you're definitely wrong regarding how it was sold to the public, and how the expense was justified.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, we're not talking about using footage for more accurate report writing. We're talking about being given access to evidence against you before being questioned about misconduct. Don't conflate the two.

Anonymous said...

GFB, whatever the liberal press reported as the reasons, I watched/sat in on demonstrations by the camera producing companies for two local policing agencies. The primary thrust of the demonstrations was in the practicalities of the individual cameras, much of it centering on evidence collection and the technical aspects, accountability issues taking a backseat though still offered up. If that doesn't jibe with your experience, all I can say is that we each see what we want to see but I was a participant up close and personal, not after the fact as an activist with a chip on my shoulder.

Don't get me wrong, I like the cameras and was disappointed when specific features were not included such as an automatic activation when emergency equipment was activated, a dispatch activation feature, and several other key features. If I were king for a day, I'd have included an automatic download feature that took place during the shift from anywhere in the range of the equipment, facial recognition software, and other things few wanted to pay for. My experience with car and body cameras has been great, several accusations against me were so totally discredited that I was teased endlessly for being so pleasant in face of arrogant suspects and the encounters were used in training.

As a classified officer in an agency with modest civil service protection, I freely admit that having access to the resulting video material makes for better reports. Few officers bother using it most of the time since it can be time consuming but it's nice to have to refresh specific points in a report. If you are telling me that I shouldn't have access to the material for that purpose, we'll just have to agree to disagree. If you are of the opinion that officers should be prohibited from using the resulting material when they are accused of a policy violation or committing a crime, it might help to remember that in most cases, accusations take months to work through the system. Without access to any evidence relating to the complaint, the odds are I wouldn't recognize the circumstances enough to give the kind of formal statement desired.

Working the same beat for years has that effect, most calls for service come from the same locations, you meet the same folks, and those of us who get along with almost everyone we meet probably won't know what a complainant is talking about unless something really stood out. Believe it or not, officers get complained on for things they didn't do, even things they could not possibly have done, reviewing video material can greatly speed up the process. I've been complained on for events that happened when I was in another state, other times when I was in court all day clear across the county, or described in such a way that no one on Earth would link me to the complaint yet I was expected to fully answer detailed questions in each case. As far as extending the right to such materials to others, I'm okay with it but it's way outside my pay grade.

Anonymous said...

Not allowing officers any sort of access to their own video footage, at least for routine stuff, is extremely unworkable.

Officers generate an ENORMOUS amount of video material, particularly if their agencies have vehicle cameras and body cameras. With the tight timelines from the Morton Act, pretty much the only people with the level of personal knowledge about which video clips go with which cases are the involved officers. Even something like a DWI arrest will probably generate 4-10 separate videos, all of which must usually be provided to the defense within 10 days.

Routine review by the officers to make sure that they are accurately recording witness, victim and suspect statements has been an ongoing thing for at least the last twenty years in agencies who routinely use video. And the consensus among scientists and even IACP is that officers should be allowed to view video before making statements in critical incident investigations.

One could certainly change the law to forbid that practice, but that would make it highly likely that no officer would ever talk to a criminal investigator in those incidents, either, other than a brief two or three sentence statement prepared by their lawyer. If you forbid it in routine reports, most police reports would consist of a Garrity statement and the words "See related video."