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.

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Comments on “If Police Officials Won't Hold Officers Accountable, More Cameras Will Never Mean More Recordings”

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31 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

"No need to record us, we've got our own cameras. No really, STOP RECORDING."

Meanwhile the public and private cameras out of police custody will continue to record things that the police would really rather not be recorded, leaving police to scramble about stealing phones, unplugging cameras and ‘borrowing’ tapes, for ‘evidence preservation’ purposes.

If, as is clearly the case, the police have little to no interest in recording their own actions any time it might be ‘inconvenient’ to have a recording the public will just have to continue to fill in the gaps, much to the consternation of the camera shy police.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Reprimands? That seems a bit harsh. They were just doing their job, where they can enforce laws without knowing them or how they think/imagine they read and apply, take ownership of your property for no reason, because it apparently committed a crime all on its own, and generally be obnoxious and pissy because you don’t immediately fall on the ground with your wrist extended so they can handcuff you as soon as they look at you.

On the point of the article, though, maybe not more recordings, but definitely more deletions!

Whatever says:

I warned you, Techdirties. Your attempts to harass law enforcers and put them under the microscope could only go so far. When push comes to shove it’s still the law against you pirate sympathizers. I know Masnick is going to censor my comment for 24 hours because he can’t stand it when the police are allowed to do their jobs. Mmmmm.

TRX (profile) says:

How about a few new department policies?

a) the officer’s testimony is always discarded if he has no supporting video

b) if there’s not a complete video record of his workday, he doesn’t get paid for that day

c) all video footage goes to a publicly-accessible server immediately after each shift

What is it they like to say? Oh, right. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

"Law enforcement agencies have long felt no one should need more evidence than an officer's word"

Yeah, at this point they’ve demonstrated how much they like to abuse that privilege. Not only do they commonly lie (at the stand, no less) but cannot even be trusted with their own monitoring.

At some time in the past, a forgotten camera might have been an honest mistake. Now, it’s evident that any camera negligence is willful and malicious. We can also assume that any edit by law enforcement is censorship of officer wrongdoing, is not for protection of the people but protection of the precinct.

That also goes for any good faith exception used by a police officer to circumvent forth amendment protections. Law enforcement agents don’t …can’t act in good faith. Benefit of doubt for law enforcement is a benefit of doubt against the people, and against the state.

And any judge that gives them that benefit of doubt is complicit in their misfeasance (or in the case of failing to turn on a camera, nonfeasance.)

Law enforcement has come to regard the people as enemies, and have made themselves enemies of the people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Law enforcement agencies have long felt no one should need more evidence than an officer's word"

An officer’s word is no more valid or trust worthy than a crack whore’s.

The mere fact that a person works for the government IS the reason they cannot be trusted.

Our downfall started the moment people decided any member of government could be trusted! Distrust is the ONLY way to keep them honest!

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The problem with doing away with "big government"

The consequence of small government is small, primitive nations. If you like the benefits of infrastructure, e.g. drinkable water,safe food, maintained roads and electricity, then you like the benefits of big government.

But corruption and purpose drift are not inevitable outcomes. We just have to find means to correct when they occur. This begins with not pretending the legal system is infallible

The problem with law enforcement is that we believed they were adequately overseen and regulated. It is only with the prevalence of personal cameras that we’re seeing how wrong that presumption was. But plenty of people still don’t look or still like to pretend those are exceptions to the rule.

We’re getting to the point where apathy to public demands for redress are going to result in violent reprisal. Much like the anti-vac crowd who had to suffer measles outbreaks before they realized the consequences of their delusions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Not holding officials accountable runs to the top

If Obama won’t hold Hillary accountable for a private email server, if nobody cares that her foundation took in many millions of $ while she was in the State department, if nobody cares that her foundation was setup solely for the Clinton Library and all other funds taken in and spent on anything but is illegal, if nobody cares that the IRS targeted conservatives then really, who is ever going to be held accountable. The current administration is pardoning itself and anyone related to it so why would low level officials worry about prosecution?

DNY (profile) says:

Police Official or Legislators?

A solution to this problem is within reach of every legislative body in the country:

Pass laws providing that with the exception of undercover operations undertaken with explicit court approval, police officers lose their police powers if their recording devices are not on. Any unrecorded arrest is invalid and the “perp” walks, any ticket issued without the recording device recording the transaction is invalid and need not be paid, any violent treatment of a suspect that might have been justifiable as a police action, if unrecorded, is treated the same as if it had been done by an ordinary citizen. Under such a regime, the attitude of police officials is irrelevant, officers themselves would shape up instantly, to the point of zealously making sure their recording devices are well-maintained and fully functional.

The question is, does any legislature have the will to take this route?

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