Command Staff body camera policy development anything but transparent to those most affected

The HPOU was recently accused in front of Mayor Parker of intentionally stalling the process for body cameras. The mayor did not agree with this allegation, but I feel it must be addressed as it is completely UNTRUTHFUL.

The HPOU has not opposed body cameras since the first conversations in 2013 when we took exception only to the policy the city planned to implement at that time. We demanded a fair policy and a quality product. I am not sure we get either with what was recently rolled out.

Here are the facts.

In 2014, the HPOU presented a plan to Chief McClelland and Mayor Parker to invite all body camera vendors to the HPOU for a show and tell. Each vendor could show off his product and explain to the stakeholders in attendance the capabilities of each vendor’s camera.

We could then provide input for the selection of the best vendor for the Houston Police Department. The mayor and chief thought this was a great idea. We reached out to several vendors and they were excited about coming. We were then contacted by the city and advised that this could harm the procurement procedure and advised against what seemed to be a great way to select the best product.

We disagreed and moved forward with a date for the show and tell. We were then contacted and advised that any vendor who showed up would be excluded from the selection process. We reluctantly cancelled the event. If this is how the city has to buy products and do business, it’s no wonder we frequently get inferior products.

Late last year or early this year, a request for proposal (RFP) was sent out by the City of Houston for proposals for body cameras. I was contacted by someone who saw the RFP who stated it appeared that the RFP was written for a specific vendor. I shared that concern with a member of the command staff and was assured that all vendors would be fairly evaluated.

We were then assured that the HPOU as the Majority Bargaining Agent (MBA) would have a representative on the committee that would select the vendor and draft the body camera policy. That person was HPOU 1st Vice President Doug Griffith.

Doug actually volunteered to wear a body camera so he would have firsthand knowledge for the committee. Doug also suggested that a member of the command staff wear a camera during public meetings and encounters so they would have firsthand information as well. Doug wore one, no command staff member did.

Doug was invited to a few of the early meetings and never contacted again. We assumed that finances were stalling the process and thought nothing of Doug not getting calls for additional meetings. In early 2015, Doug attended a conference where a major vendor of body cameras was showing off his products. Out of an abundance of caution, Doug refused to attend that section of the conference in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest.

In April 2015, we heard rumors that a selection committee – the members of which are still unknown as of this writing – had narrowed the vendor selection to three vendors. We did not know who those vendors were, but knew TASER somehow missed the cut. This was surprising since TASER is the vendor almost every other major Texas city had selected.

We immediately began to question who was on the committee and question how TASER was not a finalist. We got no answers!

In fact, we heard nothing more until September of this year when the Draft Body Camera Policy was rolled out. We did get called in to view the policy a few days before it was delivered to the Public Safety Committee. We were immediately alarmed at the policy. (That will be addressed at the end of this article.)

I had to sign a confidentiality statement before that September meeting with Executive Assistant Chief Oettmeier regarding a possible vendor, but can share some additional facts that show who has really stalled the body camera process.

After we were accused of stalling the process, I found an interesting document that was delivered to the Houston Police Department in 2014. The document was a five-year proposal from TASER that included 4,000 body cameras, licenses, STORAGE OF ALL DATA (that is the biggest cost!), full warranty, and upgraded cameras every 2.5 years for $1.9 million per year. That is a fraction of what we believe any other company can deliver. I say believe because no one can give us the cost of the chosen system or how much storage of videos will be.

Most interesting is the start date on the contract – Jan. 1, 2015!

We knew nothing about this proposal until October 2015, ten months after the proposed start date! I am convinced that Mayor Parker knew nothing about this proposal and hope our chief was in the dark as well.

The HPOU trusted the department with the implementation of the Records Management System (RMS) and that was/is a disaster. RMS has not enhanced the work experience for beat officers or investigators. I have found no user of the system who praises its performance.

We will not sit back quietly and have a less than quality body camera system implemented along with a poor policy to further cause problems for officers and investigators. We will educate City Council before any contract is approved.

Some can call it stalling, I call it being responsible to our officers and the taxpayers who will pay the price for a possible inferior camera system.

Body Camera Policy

As for the body camera policy, the HPOU nor our representative had ANY input in the policy and we have major concerns with several sections of the policy.

It was clear that the policy was written for a specific camera, even though the Public Safety Committee was advised no selection had been made. The draft policy states that the cameras will protect the constitutional rights of citizens, but mentions nothing about protecting the officers, who our chief has said are the most important part of the organization.

The draft policy requires an officer within seconds of clearing a call to categorize each recording as evidence, non-evidence or traffic stop. We can only imagine the discipline that will come from this when an officer makes a mistake or fails to make a choice. The policy does not provide for officers to immediately view the video from the vehicle and will require officers to drive to the station and get a supervisor to assist in downloading the video.

This will result in very vague offense reports since officers will be reluctant to put specifics in the report if they cannot review the video. The policy requires officers to download the cameras at the end of the shift which will require around five minutes per hour of video when the servers are working correctly. This could result in massive overtime like it did in Phoenix.

We asked for a “dock and walk” system from the beginning and it appears this is a dock, wait and walk. The policy requires an officer to keep the video rolling from the time a suspect is in the police car until he or she is released to jail personnel. Several phone calls may take place during this transport that could jeopardize some investigations. Calls may also be made to the district attorney’s office, which the policy prohibits being recorded.

Apparently those writing the policy have never transported a male and a juvenile shoplifting suspect from West Oaks Mall to the various jails during 5 p.m. traffic! That can be 2 hours of drive time.

The policy also requires an officer who fails to activate the camera to “immediately after the said event, use the camera to record their explanation or reasoning for not activating.” That’s a waste of time and another opportunity for an officer to forget and get disciplined.

The policy also allows the Homicide Division and Internal Affairs to restrict the viewing by the officer in some instances. So a criminal has more rights than officers???

The policy requires officers working extra jobs to activate the camera just like the on-duty requirements. What about the officers working in plain clothes?

The policy requires “uniform supervisors to view two randomly selected videos for each of their officers each month.”

Clearly the persons writing this policy are unaware of street sergeants’ responsibilities and have not been a street supervisor in the last decade.

Thankfully, the policy does not require officers to have the camera on while using the restroom, even though at least one citizen at a town hall meeting demanded it stating, “You never know when an officer may have a dispute with a citizen, even in the restroom.”

Thankfully, Chief McClelland said that officers will not have them on while using the restroom.

These and other issues we have with the policy could have been easily addressed PRIOR to this draft being issued. Unfortunately, someone chose not to include the MBA or those who will use the cameras in the drafting of this policy.

Ironically, cameras are believed to be ushering in a new era of transparency in police work, yet the process for the policy and selection of cameras by the Houston Police Department has been anything but transparent.