Police Body Cam Footage Remains Touchy Subject as Court Case Awaits

While the implementation of a planned deployment of body cameras on Austin Police Department officers is on hold until at least late November, city leaders and public accountability advocates are still working out the issue of how the city will decide when to release video footage from those cameras for public review.

At issue are two types of footage: so-called “low-level” incidents such as traffic citations that generally have no ongoing importance from a legal prosecution standpoint, and footage of “critical incidents” that captures actions during occasions such as an officer-involved shooting.

The release of footage from critical incidents tends to become a community issue in cases involving charges of excessive force or death, with citizens demanding to see for themselves what transpired.

At Monday’s meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee, City Council members Don Zimmerman, Greg Casar and Ora Houston listened to APD representatives who said the department would prefer to discuss the issue with the winner of November’s district attorney’s race before establishing final policy, since critical incident footage can potentially be used as evidence in court proceedings.

Brian Manley, chief of staff for APD, said the department follows Texas state law, which leaves decisions on video disclosure up to the department head, who in Austin is Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Responding to questions from Zimmerman and Casar about establishing a fixed set of criteria that would help determine when to release footage of critical incidents for public review, Manley said such incidents are so rare and specific in their nature that it is unlikely that a workable set of guidelines could be established. Lacking such a policy, Manley said the decision would remain with Acevedo and that the preferred course of action would be to confer with the district attorney’s office first to prevent tainting any potential legal proceedings before making any video footage public.

Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, joined Casar and Zimmerman in calling for a criteria matrix for critical incident footage, the timely release of which he said can help build trust in the community and prevent violent protests like those happening in Charlotte, North Carolina, following the controversial shooting death of Keith Scott.

“Doing that helps to build public confidence in the department, and we’re seeing right now how Charlotte has struggled with this issue,” Simpson said. “We could have body cameras out for use in January, and there’s no state or national consensus on releasing video to the public.”

APD’s body cam implementation has been stalled by a lawsuit from Utility Associates, a body camera vendor who alleges the city improperly awarded a $12 million contract for the cameras to Taser International despite Utility’s bid being $3 million lower.

That case is set to go to trial on Nov. 28, with a decision needed before the city can proceed with the plan that was initially scheduled for rollout this summer.

Referencing an October deadline for a full report on the body camera program – set as part of a Council action item on the matter in June – Zimmerman said Council looked forward to learning more about its implementation next month.

Discussion on the less volatile footage taken from citations and more everyday encounters between citizens and police centered on how people captured on film could give their permission for public review and how a comprehensive system for review would work.

Simpson said Austin can set an example for other communities in Texas by establishing a policy that makes it easy for academics, nonprofit groups and other bodies to review police footage and study officer interactions in everyday situations.

The preferred method for citizens caught on camera to give their permission for public release is to have a checkbox on any ticket they receive, though there is still debate about how to transact that process for video with crowds of people.

Doug Rice, APD’s lieutenant in charge of technology, said that the public forums the department held on the issue in recent months didn’t generate any demand from the public for a plan to release everyday footage. Still, those at Monday’s meeting seemed to be in agreement that the issue would remain part of the larger discussion on camera footage availability going forward.