Requests, Disclosures and Exceptions for Body Cam and Dash Cam Videos
Body-worn cameras, or “body cams” as they are known colloquially, are becoming more and more prevalent among police departments, perhaps due in part to the several high-profile officer-involved shootings our nation has seen reported in the media in recent years. While they are not yet as ubiquitous as in-car video cameras, known as “dash cams,” body-worn cameras are considerably more valuable as tools for documenting police officer activity. This is in part due to the fact that the body cam moves with the officer, rather than being fixed where the patrol vehicle is parked, and is also as close to the action as the officer is, while the dash cam may be several yards away.
However, body-worn cameras present unique problems that do not apply to dash cams. For example, an officer wearing a body cam may enter into the living area of a person’s home, whereas a vehicle in which a dash cam is mounted may not. This requires special treatment when recordings from such cameras are requested under a state public information laws.
In Texas, body-cam recordings are governed by the Texas Occupations Code, in addition to being subject to the Public Information Act found in the Texas Government Code. Texas law recognizes three categories of body-worn cameras, and has differing rules applicable to each.
First, there are body cams which are obtained with the assistance of a grant from the Texas Governor’s office. In addition to being subject to the regulations applicable to the other categories of body-worn cameras, agencies receiving this category of body cams must report to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement regarding the costs to operate the cameras and store the recordings.
Second, there are body cams issued by a law enforcement agency and which are not obtained through a grant. Agencies issuing this category of body cams must adopt a policy for their use and must train the officers who will wear them.
Finally, if a law enforcement agency has not received a grant, it may allow individual police officers to use their own personal equipment. Agencies allowing this category of body cams must provide for the security and compatibility of recordings made with such personal equipment.
Regardless of the category that a particular body worn camera falls under, the recordings taken by it are governed by the same laws for public access. Usually, a request for public information does not need to include any “magic words” to be effective as a request; however, requests for body-worn camera recordings must include certain criteria in order to be effective, including the date, time, and location of the recording.
Also, there are specific exceptions to disclosure which are unique to body-cam recordings. For example, some recordings are not subject to public disclosure at all, and if a recording is taken inside a person’s home, it cannot be released without the person’s permission.
There are specific requirements for the retention of body-cam recordings, too. Most recordings may be disposed of after 90 days, but if the recording may be used as evidence in a criminal proceeding, it must be kept until the matter is concluded.
The Texas law governing body worn cameras has only been in effect for a few years, and the law may be revised and refined in the near future to address unforeseen issues with the technology and other challenges facing law enforcement agencies who issue body worn cameras. The legislature must carefully consider the public’s interest in the use of body-worn cameras and access to the recordings, and must balance those interests with the law enforcement purposes, burdens, and efficiencies of the law enforcement agencies who issue them.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.