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School Districts' Use of Police Body Cameras Requires a Delicate Balance

The El Paso Independent School District in Texas has equipped all 43 of its officers with body cameras, which has led to some questioning the privacy of the information collected.

(TNS) — The El Paso Independent School District is among a small number of districts across the country outfitting their police officers with body cameras — and now the Socorro district is looking to follow suit.

District administrators and parents generally support the use of body cameras, but they and several advocacy organizations believe a balance must be struck to keep students and police accountable while also protecting students' right to privacy.

“It is a delicate balance,” said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas “The body cameras are good tools, but you don’t want to violate everyone’s privacy. In these cases involving juveniles, it is how (the video footage) is stored and who gets to see it. Policies will be key to handling who sees the videos, who has access to the footage and how they are stored."

El Paso ISD has equipped all 43 of their officers with the body cameras. The district has been using the cameras since December.

Victor Araiza, EPISD's chief of police, said student privacy is a key concern they are working to protect — and that the cameras will not violate any of students' rights.

“The expectation of privacy is very significant to us and that why we are not recording things we are not normally involved in,” Araiza said. “If an incident is reported to us, the officer would be there anyway. Like a theft or any crime reported, we would take photos of the scene and collect evidence, and it is no different with the body cameras.”

He said that there's an expectation of privacy in the bathrooms and changing rooms, and that the video cameras don't change that. He added that policies are in place regarding that matter.

A small number of school districts throughout the country have begun equipping its security and police officers with body cameras, including one in Houston and another in Iowa, according to several media reports. There is no data on how many school districts across the country use or are in the process of acquiring body cameras.

The Houston Independent School District launched a four-month pilot program in 2015 which issued body cameras to more than two dozen officers, according to a news release from the district. By the 2015-16 school year, the district equipped about 210 officers with body cameras.

"It is a challenging issue, especially in the context of a school," the ACLU's Simpson said. "Most of the footage they will get will involve minors and that is something they need to be sensitive about and take every step necessary to protect the students' right to privacy.”

Cost and Procedures

The cameras purchased by El Paso ISD are small — a little bigger than a pager — and are attached to the officers’ uniform shirts. A flap hides the camera’s lens when it is off, and when officers are investigating a criminal offense on campus, the flap is lowered and video begins to be record.

“We were seeing the national trends across the country and we wanted to assure the community that we are being as transparent as possible," Araiza said. "We have a lot of interaction with students, obviously, and there are instances that occur that we want to make sure both sides are represented. It can easily be done by a cell phone, but these cameras cannot be manipulated by the officer. They can only record and then it goes into a secure database.”

The footage is then stored in an internal storage system that is part of the district's information technology department.

Every officer must undergo two hours of training on the use of the devices and when the cameras should be turned on, Araiza said.

The cameras brought by El Paso ISD cost more than $500 each. The money came from the district’s general fund, officials said.

“Obviously, we wanted something that was going to be reliable," Araiza said. "We wanted something that has good images and audio.”

"We are very confident in these cameras and they are very rugged," he continued. "So we budgeted for a little more of a quality product that we could utilize and give us the confidence that it is going to work and be reliable.”

Some El Paso district parents said they support the use of the cameras as long as strict procedures are in place to protect students' privacy.

“I don’t object to them,” said Rene Aguilar, whose children attend El Paso ISD schools. “I don’t think it’ll impact student privacy. It's hard to say students have privacy in a public school when they are surrounded by thousands of students. I don’t think privacy is that big of a deal. Unless they are walking into restroom or locker rooms without any prior warning, any kind of recording should not be used in those situations. They should only be used for official type of situations.”

Erica Martinez, who has children ranging from elementary to high school in El Paso ISD schools, said she believes privacy is really not an issue considering students are already recording events with their cell phones.

“I am in complete agreement with the cameras because it holds the officers accountable and the students, too,” Martinez said. “As for privacy, when I went to school 20 years ago, we didn’t live our lives for everyone to see. But given the fact that we have social media now, everyone puts everything out there to begin with, so privacy is not really an issue. Students already take videos of incidents and post them on Facebook. The kids put up everything already.”

What's Ahead

The Socorro ISD is currently working on equipping their officers with cameras.

The district’s board of trustees on Tuesday unanimously approved applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Body Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program.

The competitive grant gives law enforcement organizations up to $20,000 to buy the body cameras, a data storage system and training. The application for the grant is due by April 27. If approved for the grant, the district would have to match the $20,000.

“We are still in the research phase as far as for what equipment is best for our department and the location and storage type,” Socorro ISD Assistant Superintendent of Administration Marivel Macias said.

The district is looking to buy cameras for all of its 40 police officers.

“It is just for transparency,” Macias said. “This is something our chief of police was looking into and I know other law enforcement agencies, including El Paso police and El Paso sheriffs, have been looking into. ... It was just something that will benefit our officers and students.”

Macias said the body cameras are similar to surveillance cameras already in place at the district's schools and should not impact student privacy.

“We have safety cameras in all of our buildings, and we have policies on how we store the footage and who is able to obtain certain footage,” Macias said. “So we feel very comfortable that we will be following those same policies we have, and we will be updating them as we go along.”

Araceli Urquidi, who has a student in Socorro ISD, said she welcomes the body cameras not only to keep children from misbehaving, but to keep law enforcement in check.

“A lot of police take advantage of kids, don’t allow kids to be themselves,” Urquidi said. “They go after them, target certain types of kids.”

She added that student privacy will not be an issue due to the growing presence of social media.

“I don’t think it would invade student privacy, with technology now, they’re publishing everything on the internet; Instagram, Facebook,” Urquidi said.

Socorro ISD parent Andres Ballesteros said he doesn’t have an issue with the cameras themselves, but doesn’t think they are necessary.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “But I’ve never seen anything happen out of the normal. I talk to my son and he’s never had no problems or kids getting out of hand.”

Footage in the Courts

Officials from both the El Paso County District Attorney’s Office and County Attorney’s Office said they do not anticipate any legal issues will develop with the body cameras being used by school district police officers, but said safety measures must be taken to protect the footage.

El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said keeping records safe is a key concern when dealing with privacy issues involving juveniles.

“I don’t handle juvenile law, but in general with juveniles, the issue is who gets to see the video,” Esparza said. “I think those are issues that raise concerns, because now we are talking about youngsters in high school and elementary schools."

Ralph Girvin, El Paso County Attorney’s Office Juvenile Unit Division Chief, said the video could become part of a juvenile's record.

“In general, what you are going to have is when an officer begins recording them and then takes the student in to custody, those recordings become juvenile records,” Girvin said. “So that body camera footage is now part of juvenile records and by law would have to be confidential. The biggest issue is who has access to videos.”

Araiza said the footage recorded by El Paso ISD officers is only evidence that will be seen by department staff and will be made available to the court administrators if the recorded incident turn into court cases.

Both El Paso and Socorro ISD officials are avoiding using the “cloud” to store the footage and keeping to internal database storage.

“The storage we are looking at is internal storage not cloud-based,” Macias said. “We feel very strongly that, if we are awarded the grant, it is one of the major items that we are looking at. We already have safety systems in place as far as our cameras at every school, so we will be using that as our foundation for our policies and procedures to keep the data safe and on who can view the footage.”

El Paso ISD is not the first district in the region to use body cameras.

The Canutillo Independent School District was using a security company that used body cameras to patrol its campuses, but the practice was stopped since a policy was not in place, Canutillo ISD Governmental Relations Coordinator Rene Leon said.

“Our security officers patrolling our schools previously had cameras, but our security coordinator at the time decided against the use of body cameras as the district did not have its own policy on the use of the cameras,” Leon said.

There were no known issues when the cameras were being used, Leon said.

“We believe it protects all the parties involved – the officers, the students and the parents,” Leon said. “It gives a recording of the situation as it is happening. It answers questions after cases or incidents are brought up.”

Privacy also played a part in the district's decision to stop using the cameras, Leon said.

The Canutillo ISD Board of Trustees at a March 22 meeting unanimously approved looking into starting their own police department. Leon said the body cameras may be discussed again in the future after the new security department is created.

Clint ISD also does not have a police force, but rather a security department. District spokeswoman Laura Cade said the department is not considering at this time using body cameras.

Ysleta ISD officials could not be reached for comment.

©2016 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.