The Houston Police Department is rolling out a policy change related to body-worn cameras that is meant to help department leaders recover footage after critical incidents.

The overview

Body-worn cameras are used by the HPD to increase transparency and assist in situations where police officers interact with the public, HPD Chief Troy Finner said at a Jan. 25 news conference where the changes were announced.

The department will now require officers to activate a feature on the cameras called "record-after-the-fact." The new feature, which Finner said was implemented after "months of discussion with our union and officers all across the Houston Police Department," allows the department to retrieve videos from body-worn cameras in situations where an officer is not able to or fails to activate his or her camera.

The backstory

HPD officers started wearing body-worn cameras in 2015 and have since captured around 2.7 million videos documenting interactions with the public, Finner said.

In March 2021, as part of police reform efforts that were implemented in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, HPD introduced new rules that require the release of body-worn camera footage within 30 days of a "critical incident," including officer-involved shootings. Since then, 83 videos of critical incidents have been released, Finner said.

The context

At the Jan. 25 news conference, Finner referenced two recent critical incidents involving HPD officers:
  • Dec. 2, 2023: HPD Sgt. Mauricio Valle was ambushed and shot multiple times before returning fire and killing the suspect. HPD released several videos from the incident captured on body-worn cameras on Dec. 19.
  • Dec. 17, 2023: An officer responding to a robbery in progress discharged a weapon. The officer did not capture video on a body-worn camera.
"Most officers have done an extremely good job of capturing incidents," Finner said at the Jan. 25 conference. "However, it's important we safeguard officers so they can concentrate on making the scene safe, and protecting the public and themselves. ... We expect all officers to activate cameras before taking law enforcement actions, but there are times ... it’s not possible."

The details

The record-after-the-fact feature has been available for use in the past, but past city administrations have opted against using it, Finner said.

Under state law, police departments cannot require officers to be capturing footage 24/7 due to privacy laws. Finner said the department is still working on draft language for the new policy that will go into specifics of when footage can be retrieved while taking officer privacy into account, but said the record-after-the-fact has been in use since Dec. 21.

As the policy continues to be drafted, Finner said he is currently the only member of the HPD who can make the call on when a video needs to be retrieved. In terms of how far back in the past HPD can go to retrieve a video, Finner said he couldn't give a number of hours, but said they are working to determine those details.

"It's not perfect," Finner said. "There will still probably be incidents where we don’t capture [footage], but we certainly, by introducing record-after-the-fact, are going to increase the likelihood we capture what we need."

What they're saying

"It’s not just the officers," Finner said. "We want people to see [footage] with their own eyes—family members, the general public and even us. We can use it as an opportunity to train and get better."

"We believe the sooner we get out video, the less the public has to fear," said Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "We want to show our people are doing it right. If not, [the public is] going to paint their own narrative. We want the truth out there."