Police Body Cam Bill Passes in Texas Senate, Faces House Vote

Police Body Camera
AP Photo

A police body camera bill passed in the Texas Senate on Thursday by a split vote of 22-8, but faces the Texas State House which has two of its own bills. The bill does not mandate that Texas peace officers use body cams, but mandates uniformity of policies by those using the cameras provided by a grant. The eight Senators that voted against the bill were all Republicans.

SB 158 was authored by Royce West (D-Dallas) and was co-authored by Senators Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and John Whitmire (D-Houston). As passed, the bill applies to sheriff’s departments, city law enforcement offices, and the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). Local police and sheriff’s departments could apply for grant funding but it is a volunteer program. Senator West was the author of the legislation that provided for cameras in patrol cars.

In a statement obtained by Breitbart Texas, “After months of preparation, we were able to pass the second hurdle on the way to full passage of body camera legislation in Texas,” said Senator West. “While the bill remains a work in progress, it will now begin its way through the House of Representatives.” The Senator said “SB158 has been a collaborative effort and we will continue to rely on the input and energy of the many stakeholders who have helped us to craft what for now, might be the most comprehensive body camera legislation in the nation.”

Senator West said he assembled a stakeholder workgroup comprised of law enforcement administration and labor organizations, sheriff’s departments, city and county organizations, advocacy groups, prosecutors and defense attorneys. He will continue to work with Senate leaders, the Lt. Governor and the Office of the Governor, to secure funding for a matching grant program.

The bill provides that a law enforcement agency in the state may apply for a grant if the agency employs officers who are engaged in traffic or highway patrol, or regularly stop or detain motor vehicles, or respond to calls for assistance. It mandates that every law enforcement agency that receives a grant must adopt a policy for the use of body worn cameras, including when an officer must activate, or discontinue recording with the camera. This policy must take into consideration the need for privacy in certain situations and at certain locations. Any policy adopted pursuant to the bill must be consistent with the Federal and Texas Rules of Evidence.  It must include provisions relating to data retention, secure storage of the video and audio, and creation of backup copies.

Guidelines for public access through open records requests would be developed, as well as provisions giving an officer the right to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident. Senate Bill 158 as passed mandates that any policy developed may not require a peace officer to keep the body camera activated for the officer’s entire shift.

An officer may choose not to activate a camera or may choose to discontinue a recording for any nonconfrontational encounter with a person, including when interviewing a witness or a victim. A peace officer may not allow its peace officers to use privately owned body cameras if they have received a program grant. An officer or employee would commit a Class A misdemeanor if they release one of the recordings without permission of the applicable agency.

The bill provides that a police agency must provide training to their officers who wear the cameras, and to anyone who will come into contact with the video and audio data obtained from the cameras. The DPS, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, and the Texas Police Chiefs Association, and other law enforcement organizations, are required to work together to develop the training curriculum.

Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), a former State Criminal District Court judge who serves as Vice Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee questioned the propriety of  the state telling local police agencies how to operate. She voted against the bill. Huffman told Breitbart Texas “I strongly support the concept of law enforcement agencies implementing the use of body cameras. However, at this point, because of the rapidly developing technology and implementation issues, such as admissibility, privacy and legal concerns, it is best for the agencies to resolve issues at a local level rather than the state mandating policies at this time.”

During the debate, concerns about the cost of the program were raised. Senator Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) asked about the cost to the state. According to West’s office, the cameras cost about $1000 per peace officer. Senator West said the state would bear no long-term responsibility, and the initial costs of equipment, training, and policy-making, would be covered by a grant. The grant would be administered through the Governor’s office.

Senator West stated that his stakeholder group discussed the issues of open record requests, privacy concerns, records retention, policies of local agencies, as well as funding and data management concerns. He says each of these issues are addressed in the version of the bill which was voted on by the Senate. The final bill as passed is substantially more detailed than the original version introduced.

Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) told Breitbart Texas, “I believe that local control is essential for public safety. This bill provides a structure for law enforcement to access a voluntary tool to continue to keep Texans safe.”

Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) told Breitbart Texas, “This is a permissive grant program administered through the Governor’s office that law enforcement groups like C.L.E.A.T. and D.P.S. support. Once their amendment was accepted, I could vote for the bill as no long term funding is authorized in the bill. That was explained in the floor debate.”

The bill is now on its way to the Texas State House where similar issues are expected to be raised. Texas State Representative Allen Fletcher is the Chair of the Emerging Issues in Texas Law Enforcement House Committee and the bill, and those like them, will have to go through his committee. Breitbart Texas spoke to Chairman Fletcher who said he would be carrying the Senate Bill through the House. Rep. Fletcher is a retired Houston Police Department officer who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University.

Lana Shadwick is a contributing writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served the state of Texas as a prosecutor and an associate judge. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2


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