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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Putting Cameras On Cops

We have to start watching the watchers.
(On Glass, 2014)

If Darren Wilson, the officer who shot at, and killed, Michael Brown, had been wearing a camera, the nation might already know who’s telling the truth about what happened the afternoon of August 9th in the middle of the street in Ferguson, MO. Instead, too many of these types of events between police, and well, everyone else who isn’t armed, result in wildly conflicting accounts. Sure the aftermath could be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to resolve. But let’s face it, in most cases, nothing is done at all to further an investigation. The quick work that is completed is for a couple of officers to hold up a rug, and a couple more to sweep the victim under it. So imagine, what if Michael Brown’s last moments had been recorded?

As Morning Joe suggested, let’s just put cameras on cops. The only people that would oppose that would be bad cops, and criminals. So let’s just do it. “This is a technology that has a very real potential to serve as a check and balance on police power,” says Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The politicized fatal police shootings of late have prompted calls for more officers to wear body cameras (Some worn like Google Glass, and some as simple, lapel-mounted gadgets) to capture video footage of law enforcement’s interactions with the public. Let’s face it, these stories aren’t new. They just usually don’t make it on the news, and proponents of police officer video surveillance contend the devices add a new level of accountability, all the way around.

The Miami Herald reports Mayor Carlos Gimenez vowed body cameras would become mandatory for all patrol officers in the county, making the announcement at a budget town hall meeting in Little Haiti last Thursday. Gimenez’s proposed budget would include 500 mini cameras meant to outfit only half of the county’s patrol force. The cameras are made by Taser and are small enough to be placed on glasses or a hat. CBS Miami reports Gimenez told the group, “I think if there had been a camera, a lot of what happened (in Ferguson) could have been avoided….Police officers, everyone once in a while may step out of line. But there are also are a lot of frivolous allegations against them.”

The case supporters make is simple: Cops and criminal suspects alike are less likely to cross the line if they know they’re being recorded. And there’s some evidence supporting it. In a recent Cambridge University study, the police department in Rialto, California — a city of about 100,000— saw an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against officers in a yearlong trial using the cameras. That’s huge. The number of times the police used force against suspects also declined. In fact, after the study was completed, the cameras became mandatory for the Rialto Police Department’s roughly 100 officers.

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Police Department is testing out the use of cameras and the New York City Police Department said that the department is exploring the feasibility of using the devices. Manhattan’s public advocate, Letitia James, has called for the cameras as a check on police misconduct following the death of Eric Garner who was placed in a choke hold by a police officer last month in Staten Island.  The city medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and the Staten Island District Attorney said last week that the case is going to a grand jury. Luckily, there was cell phone footage available, or it is much more likely that the indictment would not have gotten to this point.

Across the U.S., a growing number of departments are implementing the cameras. Apparently, one in six U.S. police departments now use body cameras in some form, according to ACLU attorney Scott Greenwood. ACLU’s Jay Stanley cautions that the gadgets “must also come with well-thought-out policies, including guidelines that spell out how long recordings are kept, and what to do in situations where footage goes missing.” Good thinking, Jay.

Lots of styles of body cameras are available.

A recent petition submitted to the White House.gov We The People petition page calls on the Obama Administration to generate a bill that would require all police officers at the state, county and local levels to wear cameras. As of the writing of this article, the plea has more than 147,702 signatures. It only needed 100,000 for the White House to take up the issue, so it looks like we are well on our way to positive legislation. Check it out for yourself, and see if this is policy you could get behind, call your representatives about, writing them letters in support of future legislation as well. Who knows, the administration could use the petition to weigh in on the broader issue of police accountability and transparency.

There are, of course, legal and procedural questions like, who gets access to the recordings? And what happens when an officer’s device mysteriously malfunctions or gets turned off at an inopportune moment? ‘Cause that happens. Taser’s cameras, for instance, are constantly recording, but the footage is deleted every 30 seconds unless an officer presses record. Then, and only then, are the 30 seconds before the officer hit record kept, in addition to everything else that’s subsequently captured. That might not do. It sounds like there’d be too great a possibility for wardrobe malfunctions. In the case of of Taser’s technology, the recordings are stored on Taser’s Evidence.com online service. Taser’s CEO Rick Smith claims the site is to police cameras as iTunes is to iPods. Again, “It’s not the hardware that’s difficult, it’s how you manage the data coming out of all these devices,” Smith says.

There is some opposition, mostly from police unions; however, the same sort of decision to embed dashboard cameras in police cars not so long ago had its own skeptics when they were first introduced. Nowadays most precincts consider it standard issue. Again,  the only people that would oppose cameras would be bad cops, and criminals. Smith adds, “Most officers started to come around to the dashboard cams after seeing that the recordings could help prove false claims against them wrong.”

In Ferguson, MO, the town with the tanks and the rubber bullets, body armor and camo uniforms,  the local police department apparently had these cameras; it just hadn’t gotten around to using them.

In South Carolina, WTLX in Columbia reports that their police department just bought 12 cameras and is already being used in the field. “The public gets to see what I see which is a benefit for everyone,” said Lt. Joseph Rowson. Rowson says their new body cameras will help make sure that the truest facts are given. Rowson adds, “When you get a video of it, a camera shot with video and audio of exactly what is going on, then it is less likely someone can dispute the facts.” Well, duh.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, police from eight Montcalm County police agencies have been outfitted with 24 high-definition “Scorpion” personal video cameras. The $125 thumb-sized cameras attach to officers’ uniforms and help them document witness statements and crime scene details. In fact, the police there use all sorts of CSI type of gadgets. From heat-sensing cameras used to track suspects lurking in the shadows to instant messaging that alerts motorists to fiery crashes in their area, technology has become a staple for many law enforcement agencies. Cameras are just a logical link in the chain of neighborhood policing efforts.

In Branford, CT, the Shoreline Times reports the Branford Police Department plans to purchase 10 additional video cameras, after the ones they had were clearly working out. Capt. Geoffrey Morgan said the department has had two of the $900 “VieVu” brand cameras for about a year. The department is adding the additional cameras with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund, specifically from funds seized from drug dealers. “These cameras are predominantly for capturing the interaction between an officer and a driver,” Morgan said. “They are for when the officer is out on the street, asking someone for a consent to search, for example. It is to substantiate or review officers’ conduct, which will hopefully lead to less civilian complaints and lawsuits.” With the additional cameras, all Branford officers on patrol on any given shift will have one, and, according to Morgan, officers in the department have been supportive of the program. The cameras, however, will have to be shared among officers on different shifts, police said. How that could possibly interfere with chain of evidence, we can’t possibly imagine.

The front chest option, by VieVu. Very fashionable.

Unfortunately, corruption is a sticky thing, hard to unglue. Simply mandating that the cameras be used isn’t enough, as City Lab reports from San Diego. “Here in San Diego, our scandal-plagued police department has begun outfitting some officers with body cameras, and the City Council has approved a plan to roll-out hundreds more. Officers wearing the cameras were present during at least two shootings earlier this year, and we’re still not any closer to knowing what happened in those chaotic moments — whether the perpetrators can be easily identified, what kind of interactions the officers had with those present, nothing.” That’s because the department claims the footage, which is captured by devices financed by city taxpayers and worn by officers on the public payroll, aren’t public records. Media’s requests for footage from the shootings under the California Public Records Act were denied.

This is absurd, of course. The police work for the public. The cameras were purchased with public funds. Government employees are answerable to the public, especially those who have the power to detain, arrest and kill. A police department that refuses to release dash-camera or lapel-camera footage to the public after a controversial incident is basically saying just trust us. Well, that’s not gonna happen. There have been too many instances in which an officer ‘forgot’ to turn on a camera, a camera has coincidentally malfunctioned at a critical time, or video has gone missing.

In the beating of Jack McKenna, III at the University of Maryland college, a campus police surveillance camera was pointed at the area where Mr. McKenna was beaten. But there’s no security video of the incident. Campus police say the camera coincidentally malfunctioned at the time of the beating. A local news station reported that the officer in charge of the campus surveillance video system is married to one of the officers later disciplined for McKenna’s beating.

That was not the first time a police camera malfunctioned at a critical time. In 2007 Andrea McCarren, an investigative reporter for the D.C. TV station WJLA, was pulled over by seven Prince George’s County police cars. McCarren claimed police roughed her up during the stop, causing a dislocated shoulder and torn rotator cuff. McCarren was following a county official in pursuit of a story about misuse of public funds at the time. The Prince George Police Dept. reached a settlement with McCarren, but she was never able to obtain video of the incident. Prince George’s County officials say all seven dashboard cameras in the police cruisers coincidentally malfunctioned.

Last March, Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot of the Second Court of Appeals in Texas complained in a dissent that when defendants accused of driving while intoxicated in Fort Worth challenge the charges in court, dash-camera video of their arrests is often missing or damaged. “At some point,” Dauphinot wrote, “courts must address the repeated failure of officers to use the recording equipment and their repeated inability to remember whether the car they were driving on patrol contained the video equipment the City of Fort Worth has been paying for.”

It has previously happened in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Daly reported in the Daily Beast that, when Ferguson cops beat Henry Davis after mistakenly arresting him in 2009, a jailhouse camera was supposed to be recording the area where he was beaten. Somehow, the footage of the incident was destroyed.

More recently, on Aug. 11, New Orleans police officer Lisa Lewis claims she was engaged in a struggle with motorist Armond Bennett just before she shot him in the head. New Orleans officers are outfitted with cameras, but there’s no video to verify Lewis’s version of events, because she says turned her camera off just before the incident. NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas called this a “snafu.” One could understand if a critic were to opt for another word, like coverup.

So in addition to making these videos public record, accessible through public records requests, police agencies need to make sure officers implement rules requiring them to actually use the cameras. If we can resolve the disappearing footage issue, then we need to ensure that these rules are enforced by disciplining officers when they don’t comply. Officers, the agencies that employ them, and prosecutors all take care to preserve footage, even if the footage reflects poorly on officers. There just has to be some accountability there.

One policy that would go a long way toward achieving those three objectives is what defense attorney Scott Greenfield calls the missing video presumption. Currently, the courts generally treat important video that goes missing as a harmless mistake. They assume no ill will on the part of police. If you discover that the police were, or should have been, recording an encounter that would vindicate you of criminal charges or prove that the police violated your rights, and that video goes missing, you’re simply out of luck. Under the missing video presumption, if there should have been officer generated video and there isn’t, then the courts would assume that the video corroborates the party opposing the police, be it a criminal defendant or the plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit. The state could still get over the presumption by presenting other evidence, such as witnesses, medical reports, and so on. This would result in penalizing officers for loosing footage. Otherwise, there’s just too strong an incentive for vindicating video to be leaked and for incriminating video to disappear.

We have issues to resolve, but the good clearly outweighs the bad. We just need to have those cameras turned on the minute an officer leaves his car, or gets called to a conflict. In an age when we have surveillance literally everywhere, not having a record of an officer’s attempt to thwart crime, in an era where some evil officers ruin it for everyone, is unacceptable. Don’t you agree. Let’s wonk this one out.

The Policy Geek

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