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Council Committees Weigh Privacy Issues With Police Body Cameras

Ryan Loyd
TPR News
Cameras are already mounted on patrol cars, but San Antonio is one of several cities currently exploring the possibility of officers wearing cameras as part of their uniform.

The San Antonio City Council's Public Safety Committee had the chance Monday to hear more about the San Antonio Police Department proposal for police body cameras.

Police Chief William McManus appeared before Mayor Julián Castro and the Governance Committee in January and told them the body camera pilot program would last about nine months beginning in March. The cameras would cost $100,000 for the test period but city leaders are trying to work out a deal to loan the cameras for free.

But there are still big concerns about the technology. One of them is privacy.

McManus said that currently, officers are limited because cameras mounted to the dashboard of a patrol car only captures activity where the car is parked. Plus, he said, if an officer gets too far away, the microphone signal weakens.

"If an officer has to get out of the car wearing a body cam, it's going to pick it up everywhere," he said. "If an officer has to go into a building, it's going to pick it up."

Two groups of 50 officers are expected to test out the two types of cameras from March to December. The city council would then decide if the technology will be used department wide.

McManus said the cameras would provide officer accountability, safety, and investigative help. During the same January committee meeting, Deputy City Manger Erik Walsh told council members he wants the cameras rolling at all times during the test phase.

"We're not interested in necessarily recording their conversations about the football game last weekend, but any encounter with citizens, traffic stops," he said.

Other privacy concerns include children and people involved with medical issues. District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran asked the chief if people would be able to request copies of the videos. That all has to be worked out through a policy.

Police body cameras are raising eyebrows across the country, spurring questions like, "How effective are they?"

There are no studies, but results from Rialto, California showed the cameras reduced citizen complaints by 88 percent, and use of force declined by 59 percent. Many other cities across the country are currently considering the possibility of adding a body camera to an officer's uniform, but so far Fort Worth is the only other Texas city to implement body cameras on its police force.

Although two committees so far are hearing about the body camera proposal, the full city council has yet to take up the issue.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.