Police Officers Must Keep the Cameras Rolling

Recently released dash camera footage of an arrest in St. Louis, Missouri offers an example of the disturbing flippancy with which cameras can be turned off during police interactions with the public.

According to a police report, on the evening of April 10, 2014, officers Nathaniel Burkemper and Michael Binz stopped a silver Ford Taurus after it made an illegal U-turn and “abruptly parked.” Only minutes earlier, 911 operators had received calls reporting shots fired. One of the calls mentioned a silver car with big rims.

Footage from the dash camera on Burkemper and Binz’s cruiser shows that shortly after the Ford Taurus pulls over, Binz moves to the passenger side of the vehicle, where he searches and handcuffs the passenger. Burkemper speaks to the driver, Cortez Bufford. Burkemper filed a report stating that he smelled marijuana and that both Bufford and his passenger did raise their hands when asked. However, Bufford reportedly “became agitated.” From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Bufford “became agitated,” Burkemper wrote, refusing to give his name and reaching for a pants pocket before the officer warned him to keep his hands in view. Bufford refused orders to get out. Burkemper called for backup when Bufford became “increasingly hostile.”

The report says Binz told Burkemper he had found two bullets in the passenger’s pocket. Burkemper then ordered Bufford out again, saying he was under arrest. Bufford unlocked his door, but refused to exit.

The dash camera footage shows officers pulling Bufford from the car. Then, at least seven officers are involved in kicking, tasing, and subduing Bufford while he is on the street. According to Burkemper’s report, once Bufford was on the street he struggled and reached for his pocket. The  Post-Dispatch reports that Binz “recovered a Kel-Tec 9mm semi-automatic pistol with four rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.”

Bufford’s attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force on behalf of their client last month.

What is most notable about the dash camera footage of the encounter is how it ends. The footage captures audio of officer Kelli Swinton, one of the St. Louis police department’s 2012 officers of the year, who walks towards Burkemper’s vehicle and says the following to her colleagues after Bufford stops struggling:

Hold up. Hold up, y’all. Hold up. Hold up, everybody, hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait.

The camera is turned off seconds later.

The charges of unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest against Bufford were dropped in August, and according to a lawyer representing the police department the officer responsible for turning off the dash camera (in violation of department “special orders”) was referred to an internal affairs department which recommended disciplinary action. One of Bufford’s attorneys has said that he doesn’t think that officers at a scene should be able to stop a camera from filming. However, as I have written before, there are instances where police officers have good reasons to leave cameras off. But officers that turn off dash cameras or body cameras during an encounter with the public such as Bufford’s arrest should face severe disciplinary action.

As cameras becoming an increasingly more common feature of law enforcement (on vehicles as well as uniforms) the public will understandably and reasonably come to expect that police interactions with the public be filmed and that the footage in many cases be subject to public record requests. Given how important cameras are in capturing police encounters there must be clear rules relating to when a camera can be turned off. Turning off a camera during an arrest or a struggle should not be tolerated.

For more information on police misconduct visit Cato’s website dedicated to that very issue.