Oversight Board Report On DC Police Cameras Contradicts Earlier Report's Claims
from the by-'activate,'-do-you-mean-'not-do-a-damn-thing?' dept
Less than a month after a first report was delivered on Washington, DC police body camera use, a second one has arrived. And it seems to contradict some assertions made in the first report.
The first report was put together by an extension of DC’s government called the Lab@DC. It showed body camera use doing almost nothing to curtail use of force by officers. This seemed to undercut the notion body cameras can be a tool of accountability. But they never will be — not if the agencies using them remain uninterested in punishing officers for misconduct.
The Lab@DC report stated officers — more than 2,000 of them — weren’t observed repeatedly or intentionally violating body camera activation policies.
Other researchers have suggested that BWCs may fail to affect outcomes because of nonadherence: officers, for a variety of reasons, may not use their assigned cameras according to departmental policy. They may fail to turn on the camera, for example. We have no indication that non-adherence was a widespread problem in this study. For 98% of the days in 2016, MPD averaged at least one video (and often many more) per call for service associated with a treatment officer. Further, even for the 2% of days in 2016 in which the number of videos uploaded was less than the number of incidents for which we would expect them, the difference is minimal, with 96% average adherence based on our measure.
More than a third of cases investigated by a D.C. police oversight board after complaints were made about officers’ conduct this past year involved officers who did not properly use their body-worn cameras during those incidents, according to a report made public Tuesday.
Some officers turned the cameras on too late, others too early, the report from the Office of Police Complaints found. In 13 percent of the cases, at least one officer at a crime scene or incident failed to turn on the camera, though colleagues did.
This is causing problems with accountability. Michael G. Tobin, the director of the Office of Police Complaints, says these “failures” sometimes compromise entire internal investigations. But he’s also quick to excuse the officers, citing the newness of the technology.
The “newness” may contribute to some unintentional failure to follow policy, but it’s not as though the department’s body camera policy is full of contradictory instructions on activations.
MPD General Order SPT-302.13 specifies that “[m]embers, including primary, secondary, and assisting members, shall start their BWC recordings as soon as a call is initiated via radio or communication from OUC [Office of Unified Communications] on their mobile data computer (MDC), or at the beginning of any self-initiated police action.”
Cameras should be rolling for pretty much any officer interaction with the public. The problem for DC police oversight — and the public itself — is that these activation failures compromise investigations of police misconduct. To investigators inside and outside the department, there’s no discernible difference between forgetting to turn on a camera and deliberately leaving a camera off. The small upside is the 2,800 cameras in use, which lowers the chance that all responding officers will fail to produce footage.
The camera policy doesn’t leave activation to officer discretion. But the hardware does, and that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. Surprisingly, it’s the local police union that’s calling for additional accountability measures.
Police Sgt. Matthew Mahl, the chairman of the police union, said he plans to ask the department for new equipment that would automatically turn on body cameras when a gun is removed from the holster.
That will help cover cases where deadly force is threatened or deployed. But there are a lot of misconduct and excessive force complaints that will fall through the “gun out, camera on” cracks.
The combination of both reports suggests cameras still aren’t fixing law enforcement. Too many officers still feel the equipment is optional, even when it’s issued at the start of every shift and clipped to their chests for the next 12 hours. If there’s no downturn in force deployment, it’s because no one’s made it clear the absence of footage should be nearly as damning as the existence of damning footage.