The attorney general of Texas issued an opinion recently that an officer is legally entitled to see all footage from his body camera, as well as that from the cameras of other officers at the scene, before giving an official statement about an incident the officer was involved in.
Police critics were quick to allege that this policy “will let officers get their story straight about questionable police encounters before putting anything on record.”
The issue concerns a section about body-worn law enforcement cameras in the Texas state Occupations Code. That regulation states that an officer is entitled to “access any recording of an incident involving the officer before the officer is required to make a statement about the incident.”
Some agencies, by policy, interpreted this to mean that an officer could review any recording of an incident from his or her own camera but not recordings of the same incident from the cameras of other officers. Other departments, however, granted access to all footage by any BWC at the scene.
Last September, a county DA wrote to Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton for clarification. She pointed out that “an officer who accesses recordings from cameras worn by others may be exposed to images and sounds that the officer did not personally experience.”
Also, she contended, “allowing an officer involved in an incident to access such recordings gives rise to the concern that the officers may embellish their statements based on recordings [of others].” This, she added, “may actually detract from the officer’s credibility when testifying.”
What, she asked, does the law mandate?
Last month, Paxton issued a four-page opinion.
No provision in the law “impliedly restrict[s] the officer’s access rights to only those recordings made by the camera worn by the officer.” The matter, he said, “turns on the meaning of the word ‘any’ in the phrase ‘any recording of an incident involving the officer.’ Texas courts generally interpret ‘any’ to mean ‘every.’ ” Thus:
“[A]n officer’s entitlement to access ‘any’ of the recordings of the incident means that the officer may choose which recording or recordings to access.” And an agency’s policy “may not defeat an officer’s statutory right to access any recording of the incident before providing a statement.”
There may be “valid arguments for or against” full access, he wrote, but the law as written is “unambiguous.” Click here for Paxton’s full opinion letter.
In essence, the magazine Texas Observer reported, “all cops at the scene of an incident get to see everything before any of them are asked to say anything.” This, the magazine worries, will allow officers to “craft a story based on what everyone else saw before going on record” and thereby “get their story straight about questionable encounters.” The magazine quoted a plaintiff’s attorney’s expressed doubts about the legitimacy of police statements under the attorney general’s interpretation.
Observer reporter Michael Barajas wrote that opinions from the attorney general “aren’t legally binding, [but] government agencies typically use them to interpret state law.” The AG’s interpretation, he predicted, “will likely soon trickle down to every department in the state that equips officers with body cameras.”
Our thanks to Force Science Instructor Chris Butler of the Calgary Police Service for alerting us to the Attorney General’s opinion.