An SAPD bike patrol officer rides through Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
An SAPD bike patrol officer rides through Travis Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

One year from now, 210 San Antonio police patrolling the city’s parks and central city on bike patrol likely will be wearing body cameras that record close-up encounters with individuals, including confrontations, pursuits and arrests.

The City began experimenting with body camera technology before recent events involving white officers shooting unarmed black suspects in highly publicized incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. But those incidents, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told Council, have galvanized public opinion nationally and generated a new level of expectation among the public for law enforcement transparency.

“We need to have cameras for officer accountability,” McManus said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that 100%, but we do need to have transparency between officers and the public.”

Adopting the new technology even for less than 10% of the force is going to come at significant cost, a consideration given that San Antonio police relations with the community, including the minority community, are generally good to excellent. There haven’t been any incidents between city police and civilians mirroring those attracting national attention. Still, the chief suggested the body cameras will be adopted everywhere now.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus presents and update presentation to the Public Safety Committee. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus presents and update presentation on the SAPD Strategic Plan to the Public Safety Committee. (File Photo) by Iris Dimmick.

McManus, who will retire at the end of December to become senior director of security at CPS Energy, told Council that equipping 210 of the city’s 2,375 uniformed police officers will cost between $445,000 and $1.8 million the first year and between $2.2-8.1 million over the initial five-year period. The wide variation in cost estimates depends not only on the cost of the cameras – about $1,200-1,500 per unformed officer – but also IT personnel, servers or cloud storage services, paralegal personnel to protect the chain of custody of evidence, and so on.

Mayor Ivy Taylor noted the high cost of adding the latest technology, even as SAPD video demos shown to Council demonstrated the video product is imperfect at best.

“I don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction to things that aren’t necessarily happening in San Antonio,” Mayor Taylor said. “I want to consider all the costs associated with it and the new technology.”

As District 9 Councilman Joe Krier noted later, the body camera’s audio file provides the most compelling evidence that police are answering 911 calls, handling violent offenders, arresting people wanted on felony warrants and dealing with other potentially dangerous challenges with appropriate force.

District 9 Councilman Joe Krier
District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier

“It appears to me you’re going to get pretty good transparency of who said what, but you don’t always get very good transparency on what you see,” Krier said. “What you don’t get is: was the guy holding a weapon?”

Krier asked McManus if the advent of body cameras was going to create a media rush to demand footage after every police incident. Acting City Attorney Martha Sepeda said the video would be protected as evidence in any active investigation, but ultimately it would be released to the public and media.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran
District 3 Councilmember Rebecca J. Viagran.

The presence of body cameras has another unintended but welcome effect. District 3 Councilmember Rebecca Viagran asked if it were true that complaints of excessive force declined in communities where police wear body cameras. McManus said it was true, although he didn’t say if it was because officers are aware their actions are being capture on video, or if members of the public are less likely to file false or exaggerated charges, or both.

SAPD vehicles already are equipped with video cameras. Vehicle mounted cameras give the viewer a wider angle image and a somewhat distant look at police and citizen behavior in front of the vehicle, and to the rear when cameras are deployed there. It’s easy, for example, to watch an officer conduct a field sobriety test on a traffic stop. Yet even these cameras lack depth and contrast. The glare of lights distorts the picture.

“Currently, we have every patrol unit in our fleet, about 650 vehicles, with video systems working in them, and we have airport police (56 officers) equipped with body cameras,” McManus said.

Body cameras, at least those whose product was shown Wednesday, tend to offer disorienting videos of close-up encounters that can be blurred, narrowly focused and often difficult to follow, especially when recording police foot chases, struggles with suspects inside houses, and other typical confrontations. The audio recordings tell a clearer story. The demonstration body camera videos McManus showed Council were a far cry from the slick videos shown on televised police reality programs, or even the kind of video work outdoor enthusiasts post on the Internet that has been shot with more stabilized GoPro cameras.

“When an officer gets into a struggle with somebody you really don’t see much,” McManus said after Council watched several videos that offered poor visuals but reminded every one of how nasty day-to-day police work can get for officers answering domestic violence calls or serving warrants on felons. “As you can see, the quality of those videos is not very good, not because the cameras aren’t very good, but the closeness of the camera and the field of vision.”

District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña.
District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña

District 4 Councilmember Rey Saldaña said, “The technology is changing so rapidly it reminds me of buying an iPod. If you were the first person to buy one, a year later it was outdated.”

Officers will have to remember to turn on the cameras when they sense a confrontation or unfolding incident – the camera batteries won’t last a full shift. District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, who represents the largest concentration of the city’s African-American population, said some will be concerned that cameras don’t always get turned on in a timely fashion.

“First of all, Chief, after today, I’ll have Wednesday afternoons free if you want to meet for coffee,” Toney quipped, drawing laughter in the Chambers one day after he lost a runoff election to Alan Warrick II and the right to continue as an interim council member until the May elections.

District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney
District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney

“If the officer forgets to engage the camera, I’m concerned someone in the community is going to say he or she did that deliberately,” Toney said. “I think some of us understand that is a reality.”

McManus said officers will have to notify a supervisor if cameras are not working, and otherwise will have to deliver video of any incidents.

Officers also will have to devote 30 minutes at the end of each shift to upload video to department servers or into the cloud, depending on what system Council selects. Vehicle cameras upload automatically as they are driven through designated “hot spots” in the city, but that technology isn’t available yet with body cameras, thus demanding additional time spent by officers uploading any video of incidents that occurred in the course of their shift.

It’s the digital equivalent of more paperwork. More than one person in the room wondered aloud whether body camera purchases might be premature at this juncture. It seems that politics and public opinion is driving the national move by departments to deploy the cameras now.

“I think in the wake of what happened in Ferguson and what happened in New York, I think it’s in the best interests of police departments to deploy these cameras,” McManus said. “The landscape of policing has dramatically changed since Ferguson. There are expectations the public has going forward because of what did happen in Ferguson.”

San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley

City Manager Sheryl Sculley said the still-evolving technology and the costs in capital and people will lead staff to avoid moving too quickly in equipping officers with body cameras. The matter will be on the Council agenda in the new year, she said, and vendors will be invited to submit competitive bids to see who can provide the best technology at the best price. By 2016, McManus said, at least some San Antonio police will be wearing body cameras.

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Interview: Mayor Taylor on the Police Union, Negotiations and Her Political Future

Police Chief’s Retirement a Loss for San Antonio

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.