Without the right policies in place, putting body cameras on police does nothing to make them more accountable and could exacerbate racial disparities when it comes to policing, civil rights advocates say.
A new scorecard rating the body camera policies of 75 big city police departments across the country finds that the vast majority have lots of room for improvement, including the half dozen Texas departments included in the report.
The scorecard ranked police departments based on eight standards meant to ensure transparency and accountability and safeguard fairness and due process that were devised by the nation’s top civil rights organizations.
“What we found this year is a nationwide failure to safeguard civil rights and civil liberties as departments adopt body-worn camera policies,” said Sakira Cook, senior counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which put out the scorecard with the tech and social justice nonprofit, Upturn.
All six Texas departments that were scored — Arlington, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio — got failing grades for at least half of the standards. Where the Texas departments did well varied widely.
Dallas and Fort Worth failed to make body-worn camera policies adequately accessible to the public, but Arlington, Austin and San Antonio did meet that standard.
Four departments got good marks for policies that limit officers’ ability to choose when to record a contact with civilians or not, meaning a complete and uninterrupted video recording of police interactions is expected unless there’s a good reason not to record.
San Antonio is the only police department that fully laid out policies to prevent tampering and misuse, although Arlington’s policy partially meets the standard.
Fort Worth did worst among Texas departments; its policy met best practices in only one category. That’s for deleting body cam footage not used in criminal or administrative proceedings. Dallas was the only other department to do that.
Vanita Gupta, a former Justice Department official who is now the president of the Leadership Conference, said that this points to the uneven way policing is done across the country, where civil liberties safeguards are disparately enacted and enforced.
"Without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that body-worn cameras could be used in ways that threaten civil and constitutional rights and intensify the disproportionate surveillance of communities of color,” Gupta said.
There is one particular area where all the Texas departments did poorly: They all allow police officers to review body cam footage before they write their incident reports. That’s a problem, according to Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn. He said the footage is supposed to be a separate piece of evidence from the officer’s own account.
“By allowing officers to review footage as they write their initial incident reports, it makes it easier for them to act for the camera and to create false beliefs about what truly happened,” Yu said. “And it turns body-worn cameras into tools that primarily serve the interests of the police, rather than tools for police accountability."
Yu points out that Texas police departments have their hands tied on this. State law requires officers to be able to review footage before they write their own reports.
The Leadership Conference and Upturn put out a second joint report that found 75 percent of the U.S. police departments profiled do not require officers to write incident reports without reviewing body camera footage, and detailed how that undermines standards for independent evidence.