A concerning detail that emerged this past week as Gregg County commissioners accepted the resignation of Pct. 2 Constable Billy Fort is that Fort did not have video recording equipment installed in his vehicle nor did he use a body camera.
The reason, as explained by Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, is that constables, as elected Gregg County law enforcement, have the power to decide if they will use such devices. (While the state does not require law enforcement agencies to use recording equipment, Gregg County has chosen to do so for its deputies.)
For the sake of accountability as well as safety, we urge Gregg County to enact a policy requiring recording equipment for vehicles as well as body cameras for all law enforcement, including its four constables.
Fort was arrested in October and pleaded guilty Nov. 18 to driving his county vehicle while intoxicated. He submitted his letter of resignation and permanently surrendered his peace officer’s license as part of his plea agreement.
Cerliano said during Monday’s commissioners meeting that Fort was the only constable who had chosen not to use recording equipment. He also said he could not say why Fort opted out of doing so.
The sheriff added that the absence of that equipment did not affect Fort’s arrest by Longview police or subsequent court case. And that may be so.
But it raises questions about Fort’s accountability during his long tenure (he began his sixth term in January).
Constables are licensed peace officers, and while their duties include serving warrants, subpoenas and temporary restraining orders, they also can make arrests and perform other law enforcement functions.
That means they interact with the public every day, and those interactions should be recorded.
Audio and video recordings increase safety and accountability for both parties. The public is protected from abuse of power by law enforcement. Officers are protected from false accusations that lead to lawsuits and possibly even more serious legal issues.
Gregg County should look to its neighbor to the west for an example of why law enforcement recording equipment should be mandatory.
A Smith County constable and two of his deputies are accused of stealing numerous items while serving an eviction notice in Tyler, the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported. During the January incident, court documents show the trio believed they had turned off their body cameras as they were rummaging through the home, but one of the suspects had done the opposite.
Despite their efforts to the contrary, these officials who should be serving the public likely will be convicted in this case because of the accountability provided by their recording devices.
(As a side note, a new Texas law will, in theory, prevent law enforcement from ending recordings on their devices during an investigation. The Botham Jean Act requires officers equipped with body-worn cameras to keep them activated.
The law is named after the 26-year-old Dallas man who was killed in September 2018 by off-duty Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger. Guyger said she mistook her apartment for Jean’s and believed he was an intruder, which led to his shooting. She was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder.)
Gregg County Pct. 2 Commissioner Darryl Primo was correct when he voiced support during an April 2020 meeting for constables having on-board vehicle cameras:
“I think that protects us from liability, and it protects somebody on the side of the road out there … if it comes down to (a constable’s) word against (a defendant’s) word.”
Requiring equipment mandatory for all county law enforcement is a common sense approach to protecting everyone involved.