Memphis Police Department Body Cam Program Being Undercut By Its Body Cam Policies

from the time-to-fix-it-now-before-it-gets-worse dept

The Memphis PD is facing quite a bit of scrutiny right now. In addition to just having lost a lawsuit over unconstitutional surveillance of protesters and activists, and being told to stop creating fake Facebook accounts (by Facebook itself), it’s dealing with the heat of a recent shooting of a Memphis resident by police officers — one that left the victim in critical condition. Body cameras were available but not in use by all officers on the scene. In addition, it appears at least two officers deliberately deactivated their cameras during the pursuit of the suspect, Martavious Banks.

In that same Tuesday news conference, [Memphis Police Department Director Mike] Rallings had also said that two other officers who encountered Banks during a traffic stop prior to the shooting weren’t using their cameras properly:

“After further review, it was discovered that two additional officers who were involved in the original stop at Gill and Pillow deactivated either their body-worn cameras or in-car video systems during the pursuit from Gill and Pillow,” Rallings had said on Tuesday.

This has led to a discussion about the Memphis PD’s body cam practices and policies. At this point, the MPD releases footage at its own discretion. In theory, this would allow the MPD to get out ahead of criticism by releasing footage of controversial incidents. In practice, however, this means the MPD usually refuses to release footage until forced to.

Director Rallings is now out defending his department from accusations that it covers up incidents by withholding footage or, in some cases, ensuring footage is never recorded. Records released to the Memphis Commercial Appeal show there is at least some officer misconduct being captured by cameras. The records also show a number of violations of body camera policies by officers.

Fifty three Memphis police officers have violated the department’s body camera policy since the cameras were deployed in October 2016, according to police records obtained Friday by The Commercial Appeal.

The department has issued more than 20 reprimands to police officers who have violated its body camera policy. At least 10 of those officers were suspended. Four officers received oral reprimands.

The department’s records also show allegations of officers using excessive force and displaying police misconduct while not operating their body cameras.

Rallings says the comparatively small amount of violations isn’t indicative of a larger problem. Instead, he posits this shows a high rate of compliance by MPD officers.

“Out of 2.4 million videos, you are going to have some officers that either make a mistake or make a bad decision,” Rallings said.

“But I want you to divide that (number of violations) by 2.5 million and you see that it is very rare there is a negative incident. Given the 1,650 officers with body-worn cameras, that is a very small percentage,” he said, referring again to the 53 officers.

It can be both. There can be a small subset of officers who’ve been caught violating policies or covering up misconduct and larger overall compliance by the rest of the MPD’s staff. But assuming the ones who have been caught violating policy are the only ones violating policy is a mistake.

Even if it’s exactly what it looks like, the MPD’s refusal to release footage until forced to doesn’t allow anyone outside the department to double-check this math. Director Rallings says the policy on withholding footage relevant to ongoing investigations will remain in place. This will continue to ensure no footage is released when it is of greatest public interest, as internal investigations can be extended to fit the timeframe needed for outrage to die down.

Rallings is right about one thing, though. Body cameras are in place for one reason — and it’s not the reason most law enforcement agencies would publicly acknowledge.

“We bought the cameras to be an independent witness, not because I don’t trust the police officers, and, officers, y’all need to hear this,” Rallings said. “It is ’cause a lot of the public doesn’t trust you.”

But his internal policy undercuts his words. He acknowledges that the PD needs to rebuild trust, but then says the PD won’t release footage of controversial incidents until it’s convenient for the PD. Collecting footage and locking it up behind restrictive policies won’t make this trust problem go away. And discovering officers are still deactivating cameras during controversial incidents doesn’t exactly give citizens much confidence the new tech will serve anything more than the PD’s interests.

And Rallings heads completely off the rails by stating a deliberate lack of recordings — like in the Martavious Banks shooting — will have zero effect on internal investigations.

“The body-worn camera is just a tool, it’s not perfect,” Rallings said. “There is no law in the nation that says for an officer-involved shooting to be justified, it must be captured on body-worn cameras.”

So, that’s what it’s going to take, huh? That’s a tacit admission officers will continue to act as their own film directors during questionable stops and deployments of force. They’ll decide what the cameras capture and how it’s framed and “no law in the land” will stop them from doing it. Director Rallings could put a stop to it by proactively releasing both footage and officers when questionable incidents are coupled with deliberate deactivation of recording devices. But he’s chosen to go the other way and make the law force recordings out of his hands and accountability onto his officers. The law can only go so far. It’s sad Rallings isn’t willing to make up the difference.

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Comments on “Memphis Police Department Body Cam Program Being Undercut By Its Body Cam Policies”

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13 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

But his internal policy undercuts his words. He acknowledges that the PD needs to rebuild trust, but then says the PD won’t release footage of controversial incidents until it’s convenient for the PD.

He says it’s a problem but then does nothing about it. Well, admitting the problem is half the battle. Too bad the other half is 99% of the battle.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Time for adverse inferences

Is it destroying or just preventing evidence?

And what of their obvious intentions in disabling their cameras? Clearly they expect something to occur that they don’t want recorded. Isn’t this premeditation? So whatever they did to whoever they were chasing couldn’t they be brought up on charges of premeditated manslaughter/murder/assault/whatever?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Time for adverse inferences

It’s quite possible that those police cameras were never actually turned off, and saying they were was just a convenient tool for getting away with witholding or destroying video evidence.

Governments have always and will always destroy evidence and cover up their crimes.

For years the Bush regime denied that any torture videos existed, then finally admitted that they did indeed exist, but had already been destroyed.

In that case, there was no penalty for lying to a judge and violating a court order, proving once again that destroying incriminating evidence is always the best and safest solution. At least when the government does it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: It's time

I’d take it one step further. If a body-cam is part of their uniform/gear, then turning it off or not having it on strips them of any legal rights a regular, non-badge wearing citizen wouldn’t have.

No active camera would equal no legal rights or protections beyond what any random citizen would have, with any actions done in that state treated as though they were just an average citizen.

Anonymous Hero says:

In-house attorney

NSA has a whole bunch of in-house lawyers and every new program has to be run by the lawyers before it even reaches the FISA court (one of the reasons FISA court looks like a rubber stamp court).

Maybe law enforcement should also have their own in-house lawyers to run things by instead of following the current approach of “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

(Before anyone jumps on the first paragraph, remember that in practice, statutory law tends to override constitutional law, and between the FISA Amendments Act, Patriot Act, and all the other garbage our congress has passed, a lot of crazy shit is legal for them to do. Also remember, “legal” and “constitutional” are two different things. It’s possible for something to be legal but unconstitutional).

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