New patrol cameras needed
It won’t be cheap outfitting Austin police patrol cars and motorcycles with digital cameras featuring enhanced automatic-activation features. The price tag is about $15.5 million and worth every dime.
The cameras are not only an investment in public safety, as Police Chief Art Acevedo noted, but also a way to resolve disputes about the way police interact with citizens. Reports of police misconduct or excessive force are more easily resolved if the incidents are captured on video. Videos don’t exaggerate, embellish or equivocate.
But to work, a person has to activate the camera. Failure to activate can be costly.
The city paid out $1 million to the family of Daniel Rocha to settle a wrongful death suit his family filed after a fatal encounter with Austin police in 2005. Though Julie Schroeder, the officer who fired the shots, claimed the shooting was justified, neither she nor her sergeant — who also struggled with Rocha, who was unarmed — recorded the encounter.
A grand jury declined to indict Schroeder on criminal charges. But then-Police Chief Stan Knee fired Schroeder because she violated department policy in the shooting. Had the encounter been taped, the events would have been objectively documented, and the officer’s version of events would have been easier to affirm or refute.
Officer Leonardo Quintana, who shot and killed Nathaniel Sanders II in 2009, approached the car in which Sanders was sleeping without activating his camera. Again, a grand jury declined to indict the officer, but a lack of objective documentation of the night’s events is one reason the Austin City Council is considering paying the Sanders family $750,000 to settle a federal lawsuit.
Quintana was suspended for 15 days for not activating his dashboard camera. He since has been fired from the Austin police force because of a drunken driving arrest in Williamson County.
The camera systems now in patrol cars depend largely on officers activating them. The cameras start recording when the officer manually activates them or when the overhead lights or sirens are activated.
The cameras the council should approve would automatically activate when officers open their patrol car doors. They also would start recording when the overhead lights are activated and when cars top a certain speed or when car sensors detect a crash. The system would reduce the human error of failing to activate cameras. They also would allow supervisors to monitor officers on the street in real time.
Bonds that don’t require voter approval would finance the cameras. They would be phased in, and police officials hope to equip all patrol cars and motorcycles with the new digital cameras by 2012.
The proposed acquisition enjoys the support of Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the Austin Police Association. “No officer wants to make a mistake and not have a camera on when it should be on, so this will help alleviate a lot of that,” said Vincent. He noted that the cameras are officer friendly in that they can protect patrol officers from false allegations of misconduct.
Said Acevedo: “This is an investment, not just in protecting the officers, but it is an investment in protecting the taxpayers and building trust with the community.”
They are both right. The cameras are a good investment — in protecting taxpayers from legal liability and in community trust.