Attorney General Says Texas Cops Can View All The Camera Footage They Want Before Being Questioned
from the no-reason-to-trust-them-then dept
Body cameras on cops are, generally speaking, a good idea. Anything that opens up law enforcement to a little more scrutiny is better than the alternative, even if body cameras contribute more to accountability in theory than in actual practice.
But just as soon as some cracks appear in the wall of opacity, legislators and government officials rush in to patch them. Multiple state legislatures have discussed bills making body camera footage immune from public records requests. In other states, the recordings are presumed untouchable until the legislature says otherwise.
Public access isn’t the only issue to be considered, however. Just as important is officer access to camera footage when faced with accusations of misconduct or abuse. The Dallas PD already took the state’s lack of firm guidelines to grant its officers privileges it would never extend to citizens accused of criminal acts. Dallas police are given 72 hours to get their stories straight before being questioned about officer-involved shootings. They are also given access to all video recordings of the incident before being questioned.
The state attorney general has now expanded the Dallas PD’s ad hoc rule to every law enforcement agency in Texas. [h/t Grits for Breakfast]
[AG Ken] Paxton’s opinion follows a September request by Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson to clarify the sweeping body cam law the Texas Legislature passed in 2015, which entitles officers “to access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident.” As Johnson’s office told us at the time, some Texas police departments interpreted that to mean officers could review only their own body cam footage before going on record, which civil rights groups like the ACLU still criticized as “poor investigative practice” that police would never use on other suspects. Others, including the Dallas Police Department, put that policy on steroids, allowing cops to also review the body camera footage of every other officer who was on the scene before giving a statement, according to Johnson’s office.
This interpretation — which gives law enforcement officers access to all recordings of an incident before questioning — was supposed to resolve a supposed prosecutorial dilemma. According to Johnson, prosecutors dealing with accused officers were having problems with testimony, considering it all could have been made up on the spot once the footage was reviewed. The dilemma was that cops were considered less trustworthy with a policy like the Dallas PD’s in place. Even if officers weren’t recalibrating their reports to match viewed footage, the public perception was that they were.
Instead of recognizing the problem and addressing it, AG Paxton has made it worse. Every officer accused of anything gets a few days and all the footage they need to address allegations. No criminal suspect has ever had the luxury of viewing all available evidence before even being charged. Cops, however, are special. So special their testimony should be viewed as suspect in cases where they’re accused of misconduct. AG Paxton may think he’s protecting cops, but he’s actually undermining the public’s steadily-diminishing faith in their public servants.
Paxton has chosen to make this a legislative problem, assuring it won’t be addressed for several months. When it is finally addressed, lawmakers will be besieged by police unions and law enforcement reps who are willing to sacrifice officer credibility to protect them from accountability.