If Police Officials Won't Hold Officers Accountable, More Cameras Will Never Mean More Recordings
from the more-$$$-spent,-but-nothing-changes dept
Cameras have been referred to as “unblinking eyes.” When operated by law enforcement, however, they’re eyes that never open.
Dash cams were supposed to provide better documentation of traffic stops and other interactions. So were lapel microphones, which gave the images a soundtrack. Officers who weren’t interested in having stops documented switched off cameras, “forgot” to turn them back on, or flat out sabotaged the equipment.
Body cameras were the next step in documentation, ensuring that footage wasn’t limited solely to what was in front of a police cruiser. Cautiously heralded as a step forward in accountability, body cameras have proven to be just as “unreliable” as dash cams. While some footage is being obtained that previously wouldn’t have been available, the fact that officers still control the on/off switch means footage routinely goes missing during controversial interactions with the public.
The on/off switch problem could be tempered with strict disciplinary policies for officers who fail to record critical footage. Or any disciplinary procedures, actually.
Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Oakland and San Diego are among the cities that don’t specify penalties when officers fail to record, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
Body cameras aren’t just for big cities anymore, which means countless smaller towns are just as lax when it comes to ensuring body cameras are rolling during stops and arrests.
Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor, notes the problem isn’t just limited to body cameras. It’s any camera an officer controls.
[Walker] pointed to a study that showed across-the-board low compliance rates of officers in one high-crime Phoenix neighborhood between April 2013 and May 2014, the most recent information available. Officers only recorded 6.5 percent of traffic stops even though the department’s policy required cameras to be activated “as soon as it is safe and practical,” according to the study, conducted by Arizona State University’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.
With body cameras, the default mode of operations for police officers was supposed to be “always on,” with a few exceptions for privacy concerns. Instead, the default mode appears to be “only when an officer feels like it.”
The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department changed its body-camera policy following a highly publicized incident last November where two deputies were caught on surveillance video using their batons to beat a car theft suspect in the middle of a street in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Eleven officers in all responded and 10 failed to turn on their body cameras. The one who did activate his did so by accident.
The problem is endemic. Law enforcement agencies have long felt no one should need more evidence than an officer’s word and, for far longer than that, have felt that deployments of force shouldn’t be second-guessed by outsiders. Recorded footage far too often runs counter to police reports and official narratives. The problem that needs to be fixed, apparently, is the recording devices.
During a six-month trial run for body cameras in the Denver Police Department, only about one out of every four use-of-force incidents involving officers was recorded.
Cases where officers punched people, used pepper spray or Tasers, or struck people with batons were not recorded because officers failed to turn on cameras, technical malfunctions occurred or because the cameras were not distributed to enough people, according to a report released Tuesday by Denver’s independent monitor Nick Mitchell.
What happens when disciplinary procedures are in place for failing to activate cameras? For one, compliance with camera policies goes way up.
According to data from the Oakland Police Department, of the 504 use of force incidents last year, 24 were not captured on camera. That puts the department a 95 percent success rate of recording use of force incidents.
The other thing that happens is better quality policing.
The Oakland Police Department has seen a 66 percent decrease in use of force incidents since the department started issuing body cameras to all of its officers in 2011.
Agencies that aren’t willing to hold officers accountable aren’t just (often literally) hurting the public they serve. They’re also hurting themselves. They may not care what the public thinks when spokespeople deliver the news that all nine dash cams coincidentally malfunctioned during the beating of an arrestee, but they’ve also got legislators to answer to — many of whom are tiring of dumping public funds into lawsuit settlement sinkholes.