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Houston Police Department’s Acquisition of Body Cameras Could Prove Invaluable in Defending Criminal

In April of 2016, Sylvester Turner, Mayor for the City of Houston, announced that two-hundred Houston police officers had received body cameras, and that Chief Montalvo hopes 4,100 officers will have body cameras in the next 12-18 months. If this plan materializes, Houston will be the largest city to deploy body cameras to all police officers.

Chief Montalvo stated that "the body-worn cameras are going to foster accountability from both sides of the lens, and it's also going to help improve public trust." Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said she used $1 million from the criminal asset forfeiture fund to help pay for the cameras, with the remaining funds coming from grants and other funding sources.

The announcement was made contemporaneous with the issuing of a General Order governing the use of body cameras by police officers. The order reiterates that the goals of the cameras are to “enhance police professionalism, improve transparency, and preserve recorded evidence of [police] interactions with the public,” in hopes of “strengthen[ing] public trust in law enforcement, reduc[ing] the number of citizen complaints and resolv[ing] allegations of misconduct by officers.”

The Houston Police Department requires officers issued body cameras to activate their equipment prior to conducting any law enforcement activities including, but not limited to:

(1) arriving on scene to any call of service,

(2) initiating a traffic or pedestrian stop,

(3) conducting field sobriety tests,

(4) responding to a citizen who flags them down,

(5) conducting any search, including those of people, vehicles, buildings, and places,

(6) detaining, arresting, or attempting to detain or arrest a person,

(7) transporting any person from one location to another, including prisoners and passengers,

(8) interviewing witnesses and complaints, and

(9) engaging in any vehicular or foot pursuit.

According to the General Order, police officers may use their discretion in determining whether to turn off their body cameras when on active duty, but only in very limited circumstances. For example, disabling a body camera would be permissible if a sexual assault victim is unwilling to have his/her statement recorded. If an officer is required to activate their body camera and fails to do so, the officer must, at the conclusion of the event, immediately notify his or her supervisor and explain why the body camera was not activated according to protocol. If the department becomes aware of an officer’s failure to activate the body camera through review, an audit, court discovery or other means, the officer may be subject to disciplinary action.

This monitored use of body cameras can prove invaluable in mounting a defense for those charged with crimes. For instance, a common point of contention in criminal cases is whether or not the defendant consented to a search or if the search was done in an unconstitutional manner. Having footage from a body camera capturing first-hand what occurred as the scene of the alleged crime unfolded would provide objective and useful insight beyond simply “he said she said.” This accountability, in turn, should lead to more equitable results in the criminal justice system.

The use of body cameras won’t cure all evidentiary issues, but it is a step in the right direction for a more equitable and transparent justice system.

Author Biography:

Stacy M. Allen has served as counsel on an array of legal matters including civil and criminal law, family law, bankruptcy, and even terrorism cases. Stacy is a proud graduate of St. Edward’s University where she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations with a concentration in Latin America, and of Howard University School of Law, in Washington, DC, where she served as President of the Huver I. Brown Trial Advocacy Moot Court Team. Her current practice focuses on a variety of civil litigation and criminal law matters.

Stacy M. Allen, Attorney at Law (@SMAllen_Esq)

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