City Council Approves $6.3 Million Body Camera Contract with NO Effective Policy to Hold Cops Accountable and Ensure Public Safety
In an October 21st article that appeared in the Houston Forward Times (HFT), the question was asked, “Can HPD’s New Body Camera Policy Be Trusted? Read the Fine Print,” where the fifteen-page body camera policy that was recently released by the Houston Police Department (HPD) was called into question, as to whether the members of Houston City Council should vote to purchase body cameras without having an effective body camera policy in place that both law enforcement and the community agreed on.
This past Wednesday, November 18th, Houston City Council voted 11-4 to move forward with the purchase of a body worn camera solution and video evidence management system for HPD.
With this vote, Houston City Council has chosen to authorize $3,373,300, which will come out of the Equipment Acquisition Consolidated Fund, as well as enter into a contract with Enforcement Video, LLC, doing business as Watchguard Video, to purchase the body camera equipment and video evidence management system that will cost taxpayers up to $6.3 million.
After having the vote delayed one week, members of city council engaged in a lengthy, spirited discussion prior to the vote with many members of the community joining in to express their concerns and support for the purchase of the body cameras.
With the recent uprisings against police brutality cases in Ferguson and Baltimore, there has been a push for members of law enforcement to be outfitted with body cameras in cities all across America. Houston is one of those cities, who were indirectly forced to purchase body cameras based on uprisings against police brutality cases across the country.
The body camera is the most useful tool that can ensure that police are protecting and serving the citizens of the city of Houston and have limited opportunity to use their badge and gun for misuse such as making false arrests or assaulting a citizen.
Several council members expressed their concerns about having to vote on the purchase of body cameras without having an effective body camera policy in place, but did not want to go on the record as having voted against body cameras. Council Members C.O. “Brad” Bradford (At-Large), Michael Kubosh (At-Large), Brenda Stardig and Mike Laster were the four dissenting votes.
Council Member Bradford and Council Member Kubosh have both gone on record as being extremely concerned about the way the draft policy was rolled out and believes it has many deficiencies that could have been addressed if HPD would have solicited community stakeholder input from the onset. One of the chief concerns by many of the council members in opposition, particularly Council Member Bradford, has been the lack of community engagement and transparency that has come with this body camera discussion that has riveted this nation.
Bradford believes that HPD should have been reaching out and having conference room meetings with stakeholder groups across Houston, where people would have gotten the opportunity to truly share their thoughts and input before the body cameras were purchased.
“I believe this was an opportunity for the Mayor to check off another box before she left office,” said Council Member Bradford.
Unless there are special circumstances, I believe cameras should be rolling at all times, when the officer has started and ends their shift, and if not, there should be a report provided and a supervisor must justify that reason given. “As I’ve said before, I support body cameras and the use of body cameras, but I believe HPD should have sought out best practices from police organizations and groups from cities across America and seek to craft out the best policy that is in the best interest of police officers and the citizens of Houston. Now that City Council has voted to buy the cameras, we need to do something to ensure the body camera policy, which has had no significant community stakeholder input, is seriously looked at.”
Council Member Dwight Boykins, who was one of the most passionate voices in defense of moving forward with the purchase of the body cameras without having an effective policy in place, indicated that he was “speaking from an African American perspective,” as he challenged his fellow colleagues on City Council to move forward with the vote to purchase the cameras immediately. Boykins stated that too many Black and Hispanic youth’s lives were at risk without purchasing the cameras and because the city had the money to buy the cameras, he did not believe it was a good idea to allow a new administration to take over in January and not even consider body cameras as an important item to take up.
“Let’s go tell Robbie Tolan and his family that the purchase of a body camera should be delayed for 30 days,” declared Boykins. “Let’s go tell Trayvon Martin and his family. Let’s go tell all these kids who lost their lives because there was no camera that we have an opportunity to vote on it and we want to push it back for 30 days. If there’s only one single vote on this council voting yes, it would be mine.”
On Monday, November 16th, Council Member Boykins called a round-table meeting with community members, the HPD Chief of Police, NAACP members, a representative from The Mayor’s Office, Council Member Kubosh, Council Member Bradford and Pastor James Nash to discuss body cameras for HPD patrol officers.
This past Saturday, Council Member Boykins held a town hall meeting regarding the policy for the HPD body cameras. Several concerned residents from the community were able to hear directly from Chief McClelland regarding the implementation and rules regarding the body cameras. Residents were also able to ask questions to Council Member Boykins and police chief.
Both Chief McClelland and Council Member Boykins indicated that the current HPD policy is mandated by Senate bill 158 and that 4,500 cameras will be distributed throughout the Houston Police Department. According to McClelland, the cameras will be used to record activity and the cameras should be on the street within 60 days, beginning with central station.
Questions from the community ranged from, how much training will police officers have on the camera? Who makes up the citizen review board for the cameras?
Community activists chided HPD, Chief McClelland, Council Member Boykins and the other members of City Council who voted to approve the contract, saying that the community was never fully engaged and that there is still no accountability for police officers.
“The community never advocated for body cameras,” said National Black United Front National Chairman Kofi Taharka. “We advocated for transparency and accountability. We advocated for an independent citizen review board with subpoena power. The powers that be baited us with body cameras to pacify us and to make money.”
“Body cameras are not the end all be all, and without an effective policy behind the cameras they are a waste of taxpayer’s money,” said young student leader Anthony Collier.
Former HPD Sergeant Shelby Stewart, who has studied the current policy, believes that Blacks will continue to be targets and that it will negatively impact African Americans the most because Blacks get statistically stopped the most.
“If HPD officers have the discretion to turn their cameras on and off whenever they feel like it, and if HPD creates a department to review all of the videos, then that is like the fox guarding the hen house,” said Stewart. “I will continue to let the community and HPD know that if officers see there is a body camera policy in place that has tons of loopholes in it, and that there are not real repercussions for their actions, then those officers might continually turn off their body camera, or damage it, to protect them from discipline.”
Stewart strongly believes that the community should get even more involved with making their voices heard, particularly to the remaining mayoral candidates, before any citizens are injured or killed unnecessarily, with only the officer’s word that he did everything right by the book, being considered as evidence.
Public trust can only be gained by transparency and input from community stakeholders, something that many in the community believe the Mayor, City Council and HPD failed to do, so that the distrust of the community would be restored.
One thing is for sure, more questions are looming and many community residents are not planning to let this issue be put to bed without real answers. The HFT will keep the community up-to-date on any new and significant developments.
For any further questions, concerning the HPD body cameras and the body camera policy, you can visit houstonpolice.org.