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.