Police Body Cams: No Better than Dash Cams
August 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Police Officer body cameras are all the rage these days. They fulfill a promise of transparency and accountability. Yet, are they any better than dash cams of the past decades? Sure, the body cam gives you the ability to follow the officer’s movement away from the police car. But, will officers treat them any differently? Will there be true accountability for the officers who decide when to use them and more importantly when not to use them?
Flashback over the past 15-20 years: departments first started utilizing the dashboard cameras in patrol cars used primarily for DWI arrests. Technology wasn’t cheap so VCR recorders were placed in the trunks of DWI task force officers. The camera recorded from the front window. DWI suspects were placed in front of the car for field sobriety tests. Jurors no longer had to simply rely on the officer’s word, but could instead watch the accused perform tests roadside. Then officers would remove the VCR tape and punch the little tab, ensuring the tape would not be overwritten. It was preserved as evidence for trial, assuming officers activated the recording.
Initially, body mics were not available so unless the conversation occurred inside the patrol car, the video was akin to a silent movie. Eventually the use of dash cams extended beyond the DWI task force but rarely covered all police cars. Body mics too became available.
Soon, VCR tapes were replaced with digital recording devices. No longer would the officer have to change the tape. The recording could back up and “start” recording 10-30 seconds before the officer activated the recording. Evidence was stored digitally and could be uploaded first at the end of the shift but then later via wireless hotspots around town. Because the digital recording was stored on a hard drive, the officer would “tag” the relevant portions of the recording for upload. Each start and stop of the video created a new file from which the officer could choose to tag for evidence.
As technology continued to grow, officers received small devices allowing them to remotely start and stop the video recording as well as the audio, both inside the car and from body mics. This allowed officers to step away from car and yet still control the video and audio recordings.
Throughout the use of video and audio, it has not been uncommon for officers to report technical errors. Sometimes they reported the equipment simply wouldn’t work. Other times, perhaps a recording was cut short or started late. Interestingly, audio would turn on and off throughout the video, especially once the officers obtained the ability to control audio from a handheld device rather than return to the car. All in all, there was no accountability or repercussion for an incomplete video, even where officers could be seen on video manually turning off the audio.
So why would today be any different? Why would body cams suddenly escape the problem of technical difficulties? Why would officers start recording everything rather than just the parts they choose? In short, they won’t.
Body cameras failed to capture the moment a gunman opened fire on two San Diego police officers, killing one, because the surviving officer only activated his body cam after the wounded suspect was running away. Body cameras, like dashboard cameras, are supposed to “provide openness and transparency, and build trust in the police,” said Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor.
“If officers are not turning cameras on, well, you’re not going to build trust,” he said. “You’re going to reinforce the cynicism that already exists.”
He pointed to a study that showed across-the-board low compliance rates of officers in one high-crime Phoenix neighborhood between April 2013 and May 2014, the most recent information available. Officers only recorded 6.5 percent of traffic stops even though the department’s policy required cameras to be activated “as soon as it is safe and practical,” according to the study, conducted by Arizona State University’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.
This is the problem with officer control – 6.5% of all traffic stops recorded. Much like the dash cam and body mic, when subject to an officer’s control, the officer selects what video footage will be available. The officer selects which audio is preserved. And, unless there are penalties for the failure to activate the equipment, this practice will continue.
San Diego police have been criticized for failing to record a number of high-profile shootings. That prompted the department to revise its policy to stipulate that officers must turn on their cameras before most types of contact with citizens, but violations have continued.
Similarly the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department has revised its policy after a high profile incident:
Eleven officers in all responded and 10 failed to turn on their body cameras. The one who did activate his did so by accident.
Three officers were placed on leave, including two who are charged with assault under color of authority.
No one was disciplined for failing to turn on their cameras because the department’s policy at the time encouraged, but did not require, their use, said Sgt. Ray Kelly, an agency spokesman. The agency now requires deputies to use the cameras in most circumstances and lays out the discipline for failure to comply.
Lest you think this is just a California problem, Chicago police too are under fire for their body camera usage or lack thereof. July 28th, Chicago police shot an unarmed 18 year-old after he allegedly stole a car. Initial reports said an investigation was underway as to why the shooting officer’s body camera did not work. Authorities did not believe the officer intentionally turned off his camera. After about a week, Chicago’s police superintendent suggested the officer’s body camera wasn’t turned on because the officer had only received it a week earlier and wasn’t proficient in its use.
Whether it’s a training issue or a responsibility issue, one thing remains clear: departments must utilize stringent policies that require video usage. There must be accountability for violations of that policy. Otherwise, we are no better than dash cams subject to officer’s control. When they select when and how to use a recording device, those who would cheat or cut corners will use technology to their advantage.