Tag: police body cameras

San Francisco Body Camera Plan Botches Officer Viewing Compromise

The Police Commission in San Francisco recently voted 5-2 to approve a body worn camera (BWC) plan. The plan, which one commissioner described as a “travesty,” prohibits supervisors from viewing BWC videos in order to find policy violations. It also requires officers involved in a shooting or in-custody death to submit an “initial statement” before they review BWC footage. Whether officers should be allowed to view BWC footage before making a statement is one of the most pressing issues in body camera debates. Unfortunately, the San Francisco BWC plan does not adequately address this issue.

Your memory isn’t always reliable. While many of us are confident that we’re pretty good at remembering specific incidents, it turns out that even our memories of notable and historic events, such as 9/11, are hardly as well-formed and clear as we might hope.

The legality of an officer’s use of deadly force depends in large part on the reasonableness of what the officer believed at the time of the incident. For instance, whether an officer who shot someone reasonably feared for his life, or the lives of innocent bystanders, will be an important factor in determining whether the shooting was legal.

BWCs, like other cameras, don’t have fuzzy memories. What’s filmed by BWCs is stored and, absent tampering, won’t change. The same can’t be said of police officers’ memories. This is one of the factors that has prompted debate about whether police officers should be allowed to view BWC footage of a deadly use-of-force incidents before they file a report.

I and others have argued that police should not view BWC footage related to a deadly use-of-force incidents before filing a report. A policy that allows officers to view BWC footage before filing a report would allow officers an unfair chance to exculpate themselves of wrongdoing. Officers could search for justifications for use-of-force that didn’t occur to them while the incident in question was happening.

Others could argue that police officers, like all human beings, don’t have perfect memories and might not accurately remember important facts concerning a stressful incident under investigation. Rather than being seen as an honest lapse of memory, the omission of crucial facts in a report could be portrayed as an officer trying to avoid the consequences of poor behavior.

San Francisco’s body camera plan requires officers involved in a shooting or in-custody death to submit an “initial statement” before he reviews body camera footage.

At first glance, this policy seems like a decent compromise between the two positions I outlined above. Such a policy ensures that officers can view BWC footage, but only after providing a statement outlining what they remember about the incident under investigation.

However, the “initial statement” required by the recently approved San Francisco plan is explicitly required to be brief and resembles a collection of basic facts rather than an explanatory report:

The initial statement by the subject officer shall briefly summarize the actions that the officer was engaged in, the actions that required the use of force, and the officer’s response.

These initial statement requirements are too narrow. As Alan Schlosser, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said, officers should fill out a full report before viewing body camera footage:

When we said there should be an initial report, we didn’t mean there should be a brief report,” he said. “When we support an initial report, we meant there would be a full report and then the officer would see the video and then there would be a supplemental report, with the understanding that recollections change.

Police in San Francisco will be wearing BWCs in the not too distant future. With the current plan in place there is still room for improvement when it comes to using BWCs as tools for increased law enforcement accountability. If San Francisco’s police commissioners ever want to revisit their body camera plan they could do worse than taking inspiration from their neighbors across San Francisco Bay. In Oakland, officers involved in shootings cannot view body camera footage without first being interviewed and submitting a report.

 

Cato/YouGov Poll: 92% Support Police Body Cameras, 55% Willing to Pay More in Taxes to Equip Local Police

Amidst increased public scrutiny of policing practices and rising concerns over police officer safety, a recent Cato/YouGov national survey finds fully 65% of Americans say there is a “war on police” in America today. Majorities across partisan groups share this view, although Republicans (81%) express greater concern than independents (62%) and Democrats (55%). 

While Americans are concerned about police safety, this does not mean they wish to avoid reform. Instead, Americans overwhelming support (92%) requiring police officers wear body cameras that would record video of their interactions. Moreover fully 6 in 10 “strongly support” such a proposal. A paltry 8% oppose police wearing body cameras. Support extends across demographic and political groups. In an era of hyper-partisanship, police wearing body cameras achieves rare post-partisan consensus.

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Police Officer Reinstated Despite Regularly Having Body Camera Off

Jeremy Dear, an Albuquerque police officer, has been reinstated despite the fact that his body camera was not on when he shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, a suspected car thief who allegedly pointed a gun at Dear during a foot chase in April last year. Dear’s reinstatement is a reminder that officers who do not have their body cameras on when they are supposed to should face harsh disciplinary consequences.

In June 2013 Dear, who was the subject of numerous complaints, was ordered to have his body camera on for every interaction with the public. According to reporting from the Albuquerque Journal, Personnel Board documents show that Dear didn’t have this body camera on for about half of the calls he responded to. Dear’s failure to record his encounters with citizens prompted Albuquerque police chief Chief Gorden Eden to fire him last December.

At the time of the Hawkes shooting Dear was equipped with TASER’s Axon Flex camera. Below are illustrations from the instruction manual for the camera, showing how the camera is attached to the collar and connected to the controller.

Dear claims that his camera was accidentally unplugged from the controller when he killed Hawkes. Dear’s camera was sent to TASER for analysis. TASER’s report on Dear’s camera states that it was shut down and activated a number of times on the day of the Hawkes shooting and that the camera would not have shut down because of low battery power.

TASER’s report also stated that the connector cable on Dear’s camera was damaged at both ends and that the cable retention clip on the controller was missing, thereby making the removal of the cable from the controller “easy with minimal force.”

The report went on the say that “Stress was placed on the cable by twisting and pulling it but without disconnecting it from the system. This stress did not result in a powering down of the system.”

TASER’s report doesn’t contradict Dear’s claim that his camera’s cord was unintentionally detached from the controller. But it is worth remembering that his camera did activate and power down normally numerous times on the day of the shooting.

Dear’s case raises questions about what the repercussions should be for officers who fail to have their cameras activated when they should. I and the ACLU’s Jay Stanley think that in such circumstances there ought to be “Direct disciplinary action against the individual officer.”

Border Patrol Slowrolls Body Camera Deployment

Today, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced that the agency would spend three additional months studying whether body-worn cameras (BWCs) are suitable for deployment by CBP. The agency has been studying BWC deployment since 2014, and the effort comes after years of intense pressure by non-governmental organizations over a pattern of lethal use-of-force incidents since 2010.

The draft feasibility report released by CBP appears to give federal employee unions virtual veto power over the deployment of the cameras, stating “Successful union negotiations are required prior to implementation.”

The report also makes clear that the cameras are being sold to CBP agents as a shield against public complaints, and less as an officer accountability tool:

Officers and agents must be willing to wear and operate their BWCs, without fear of reprisal. Officers and agents must have the confidence of knowing that the primary purpose of BWCs is to corroborate their sworn testimony, not create frivolous punishments. They also must be assured their privacy will be protected from unnecessary review and release.

In addition, the report outlines a number of factors that “may adversely affect CBP officers/agents, operations, and mission (sic).” However, upon closer examination many of these factors are easily addressed and need not impede the deployment of body cameras.

For instance, the working group writes:

The BWCs increase the cognitive load experienced by officer/agents, causing them to redirect their attention towards the operation of the camera versus allowing them to focus on the encounter. BWCs may also cause an officer/agent to second-guess a course of action.

Body cameras may take some getting used to, but the fact that some officers find operating the cameras difficult or distracting should not prevent the CBP from deploying body cameras. After all, dash cameras also presumably increased officers’ “cognitive load” and caused some officers to second-guess their actions. And yet, dash cameras as now considered perfectly normal law enforcement tools. During a press call on November 12, CBP officials conceded that it was a mistake on their part not to have conducted a dash camera review as part of the initial BWC evaluation process, an oversight that will allegedly be corrected during the upcoming follow on evaluation process.

SC Body Camera Bill Limits Access to Footage

Today South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will sign S.47, a body camera bill. The bill requires state and local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina to use body cameras and to develop body camera policies and procedures. It also establishes a “Body-Worn Cameras Fund” and prohibits police body camera footage from being accessed via Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests. The increased use of police body cameras is worthwhile, but limiting access to the footage hinders attempts to increase law enforcement accountability.  

Lawmakers fast-tracked S.47 following the death of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old man who in April this year was shot in the back while fleeing Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer.

A passerby, Feidin Santana, filmed Scott’s shooting, and his footage will undoubtedly play a key role in Slager’s upcoming murder trial. Shortly after the shooting I wrote that it is impossible to know for sure how Slager would have reacted if he had been wearing a body camera, but nonetheless that “It is hard to imagine that if Slager had been wearing an operating body camera that he would have behaved the way he did.”

Although prioritized after Slager killed Scott, S.47 will limit public access to body camera footage of worrying police interactions with members of the public. Among those permitted to access police body camera footage are: the subjects of a body camera footage, criminal defendants, civil litigants, and attorneys representing any of these people.  

It is good that S.47 allows for some access to body camera footage, but the access is too limited. With police body camera footage exempt from FOIA requests it will be difficult for citizens who don’t meet the legislation’s access requirements, such as journalists, to request footage that might be of interest to the public.

The FOIA exemption was added to the bill in large part because of the costs associated with body cameras. It is true that storing, replacing, and maintaining body cameras can be expensive. For instance, Cleveland is expecting to spend $3.3 million over five years on 1,500 body cameras. But some lawmakers have tried to tackle the fiscal impact of body cameras. An Illinois body camera bill on Gov. Rauner’s desk includes a $5 fee for traffic tickets aimed at mitigating the cost of body cameras.

Body cameras can only be used as tools for increased law enforcement accountability while governed by sensible policy. S.47 does include some good proposals, such as requiring law enforcement agencies to use body cameras, but when it comes to access to body camera footage it is too restrictive.

Police Body Cameras Raise Privacy Issues for Cops and the Public

Advocates of increased transparency in law enforcement are understandably keen to see more police officers wearing body cameras. Not only is there some evidence that police officers wearing body cameras contributes to a decline in police “use-of-force” incidents, footage from police cameras has provided useful evidence to those investigating allegations of police misconduct. Yet despite the benefits of police body cameras there are serious privacy concerns that must be considered and addressed as they become more common.

Perhaps the most obvious privacy concerns are those of the civilians filmed by police officers. If footage from police body cameras is considered public record then hours of footage of innocent people’s interactions with police officers is potentially available. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which police officers wearing body cameras enter someone’s home and leave without making an arrest. Footage of that encounter could reveal embarrassing or private information about the homeowner.

In November of last year it was reported that Washington police departments were reviewing their policies related to dash cameras and body cameras in the wake of an increase in requests for footage from the public via public record requests. As the ACLU has pointed out, Washington is one of the states where body camera footage is considered “susceptible to public release upon request.”

At the end of last month, members of the North Dakota House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would exempt police body camera footage of the inside of a private place from a public record request. North Dakota House member Kim Koppelman, who introduced the bill, said that the legislation would protect civilians in situations similar to the one I outlined above. Koppelman reportedly introduced the bill “at the request of West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan.” Koppelman and Reitan may be primarily concerned with the privacy of civilians, but a civilian could have a genuine interest in seeing the footage gathered by police officers in her home, especially if she believes that officers damaged property or behaved poorly.