New pa­trol cam­eras needed

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

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