City officials are praising the San Antonio Police Department’s emphasis on body cameras and community policing in the 2016 fiscal year budget, set for approval Thursday by City Council.
The police department proposes spending $3 million in general funds to purchase 1,534 body cameras for officers. The cameras will be gradually deployed among officers in three phases over the next three years.
The first phase will involve 251 cameras for bicycle and park police officers. The second phase, beginning later in FY 2016 and continuing through FY 2017, will involve an incremental roll out of cameras to police substations.
SAPD interim Chief Anthony Treviño highlighted body cameras and other key aspects of the department’s proposed FY 2016 budget before the City Council last week. San Antonio is one of the first major U.S. cities to commit to a full deployment of police body cameras. The department launched a six-month pilot program in March 2014 with 150 cameras going to officers on downtown bicycle patrol and those operating from the Westside substation.
Local police officials were asked to testify before the Texas Legislature earlier this year about their body camera plans. According to Treviño, legislators were so impressed that they intend to use San Antonio’s body camera policy as a template for statewide policy.
Treviño said officers will undergo training to use the body cameras, and the City will add eight civilian staff at a cost of $395,000 to support the body camera program.
The body camera program comes amid rising public protest over police shootings of unarmed civilians in different parts of the country. Some of those shootings were recorded by civilian onlookers and have served as evidence contradicting official police accounts of the shootings.
For some months now, City officials have discussed the financial and logistical impact of deploying body cameras in San Antonio, including how to address issues such as data storage, privacy rights, and open records requests.
Treviño said the cameras are necessary to bolster accountability and transparency. The council will consider the contract for the body camera vendor next week.
“The technology is evolving, but in a positive way,” Treviño said. “We want to incorporate technology that is fiscally responsible yet transparent.”
Councilmember Rey Saldaña (D4) said he wants the City to assure the public that the SAPD body cameras are not being purchased in response to any specific local incident involving alleged excessive use of police force. Saldaña and other council members acknowledged last week’s shooting of a man by two Bexar County sheriff’s deputies, which was recorded by a bystander, has raised serious public concerns. The SAPD’s plans to deploy body cams have been more than a year in the making.
“We have been diligent, patient, in talking about this,” Saldaña said. He also said he understands how capturing a police confrontation on video can make a difference in an investigation. He acknowledged last week’s deputy-involved shooting would not have stayed in the headlines had it not been recorded by a bystander. The video appears to show the victim with his arms raised at the time he was shot.
Bexar County Commissioners also are buying body cameras for sheriff’s deputies. Commissioners originally allocated $634,000 for body cameras, but agreed Tuesday to increase that funding. The new SAPD budget also contains $2.4 million to replace 294 in-police car video cameras.
“There would be nobody talking about it if we didn’t have a video taken of the shooting from a hundred yards away,” Saldaña said. “The problem is we have only a picture from a hundred yards away, not the whole picture.”
“I think this helps the SAPD to be a proven leader when it comes to issues like transparency,” Treviño replied.
Saldaña continued, “I’m glad San Antonio is taking the lead with large-scale deployment. We’ll be a textbook case. We asked about deploying body cameras long before it became an issue.”
“Our city is moving faster than others,” added Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8).
The police department’s budget also includes $280,000 to fund a one-year pilot ShotSpotter program in the Eastside Promise Zone and in the Westside Hope neighborhood. The latter is a planned revitalization zone on the city’s near-Westside similar to the Eastside Promise Zone.
ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection program that immediately alerts police to the source of the gunshot. The city would have an option to extend the program contract by one year.
Councilmember Alan Warrick II (D2) has long been an advocate of gunshot detection, saying it could cut down on gun-related crime in his district east of downtown. He asked whether the boundaries for either pilot program zone can be expanded if needed to cover more ground.
Treviño said a whole focus area could shift if necessary but expansion would mean an added cost.
Treviño also outlined how the police department hopes to improve community engagement by getting more civilians involved with monitoring their neighborhoods and sharing information. Such citizen programs help build trust between the SAPD and the community it serves, Treviño told the council.
The San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) has helped to achieve this objective, he said. Downtown patrol officers are coordinating with park and bike police to intensify crime prevention efforts at specific hot spots. This effort includes having officers be more equipped to quickly assess the mental state of someone who is arrested or stopped for questioning.
Treviño said the SAPD also wants to improve programs such as Coffee with the Cops, where neighborhood residents can chat with officers about more immediate public safety issues in their community in a casual setting. Another program invites individuals and groups critical of police practices to visit the police academy to observe cadets in training.
In order to attract quality recruits, the SAPD plans to raise cadet pay from $28,428 to $40,700. Treviño said the department remains committed to filling vacancies it could not fill in fiscal year 2015. That was due to the city maintaining a balanced budget while still negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the city’s police and fire unions.
Treviño said headlines nationwide show that law enforcement professionals function in an increasingly difficult environment, with more officer-involved shootings being reported. Retaining competent, community-oriented officers is essential now, he said.
Hispanics account for 52% of San Antonio’s police force, and 91% of all officers are male. The department will ramp up attempts to further diversify its force through events aimed at specific segments of the city’s population.
“We’ve seen dynamics change, so recruitment is difficult,” Treviño said. He added that justice-based policing – a curriculum he instituted at SAPD – can help to lead to more positive relationships with community members.
“These are things that are too important not to be direct with,” he said. “It’s about dignity and respect. If those things are threatened, people will fight you over it.”
Mayor Ivy Taylor expressed support for the SAPD’s various initiatives for FY 2016.
“I’m glad to hear about community engagement. We need to creatively think of how to better address these issues that all shouldn’t fall on just police,” she said. “Other departments like code compliance should be involved.”
Treviño also said his department will report to council on how the department will align with the six “pillars” that the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended in its recent report. The six pillars are building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, technology and social media, community policing and crime reduction, training and education, and officer wellness and safety.
*Top Image: SAPD Chief William McManus speaks to reporters after the City Council voted to approve the body camera contract. Photo by Iris Dimmick.