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Police Impunity and Law Enforcement’s Increasing Acceptance of Body-Mounted Cameras

Some police are reluctant to wear body cameras because they fear offhand comments about superiors could derail their careers

Having more and more police wear body cameras could potentially increase accountability for police. However, whether law enforcement agencies adopt policies that allow officers to turn the cameras on and off whenever they want is a key issue.

The Associated Press recently highlighted:

…[t]he lack of clear guidelines on the cameras’ use could potentially undermine departments’ goals of creating greater accountability of officers and jeopardize the privacy of both the public and law enforcement officers.

“This is a brave new world that we’re entering here, where citizens and police both are going to be filming each other,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research and policy organization…

“Some rank-and-file officers are worried the technology might ultimately be used to derail their careers if, for example, an errant comment about a superior is captured on tape,” according to the AP.

Is this a convenient excuse to limit the time that cameras are recording police activity?

When officers are deployed and on patrol, they should have their body cameras recording. They do not know when they might find themselves speeding to respond to a report of alleged criminal activity or violence. What if they do not remember to turn on the camera?

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has suggested, “The ideal policy for body-worn cameras would be for continuous recording throughout a police officer’s shift, eliminating any possibility that an officer could evade the recording of abuses committed on duty.” But, Stanley recognizes that “continuous deployment” could “impinge on police officers when they are sitting in a station house or patrol car shooting the breeze — getting to know each other as humans, discussing precinct politics, etc.” A police supervisor could use comments against whistleblowers or union activists that are picked up on camera.

It should be noted that this is the concern of citizens who participate in protests or demonstrations and are met with police wielding cameras that are constantly taking video of them as they stand their holding up signs. Many times this footage is not being taken because demonstrators are committing an act of civil disobedience and defying police orders. This footage presumably is analyzed later, archived and cataloged in a database allowing officers the ability to get to know people who are routinely showing up at protests. And that creates the potential for them to be targeted preemptively by police, including by being snatched and grabbed at demonstrations when police are making arrests as part of “crowd control.”

Nevertheless, Stanley appropriately expresses concern. So, what if the cameras do not record continuously?

…[T]hat would place them under officer control, which would create the danger that they could be manipulated by some officers, undermining their core purpose of detecting police misconduct. This has sometimes been an issue with patrol car “dashcams” — for example, in the case of two Seattle men who filed a claim for excessive force and wrongful arrest. Parts of the arrest were captured by a dashcam, but parts that should have been captured were mysteriously missing. And with body cams, two Oakland police officers were disciplined after one of the officers’ cameras was turned off during an incident…

The answer, according to Stanley, is to have some kind of an “automated trigger” that minimizes the amount of recording. Movement, raised voices, etc, could possibly activate them.

The Justice Department is currently working with the Police Executive Research Forum to develop “guidelines for the cameras’ use, from when the devices should be turned on to how departments can protect the privacy of those who are inadvertently captured on the footage.” (Note: A major PERF report for ICE on improving the Border Patrol’s guidelines for use of force has been kept secret by President Barack Obama’s administration. One should wonder if proposed guidelines PERF recommends to the Justice Department will remain concealed from the public as well.)

Body-mounted cameras are likely to record “innocent behavior,” such as when police enter a person’s home to respond to a burglary or to deal with a call related to a reported act of domestic violence.

Citizens may not want to be recorded by police, but guidelines could provide notice to citizens that the camera is not only for recording them. It will record the police officer’s actions as well.

In fact, it is probably more worthwhile to be concerned about data retention and the use of footage by law enforcement afterward. Will it be shared with other agencies or departments, including those in the federal government? When will the footage be destroyed if there is no evidence of any crime?

More and more in law enforcement are warming to the idea of having officers wear cameras. Body-worn camera footage could be used in cases instead of grainy cell phone footage. It could exonerate officers. It could give law enforcement the ability to contest YouTube videos that go viral showing alleged police brutality. Law enforcement could release a longer video that places the police officer’s conduct into the context of responding to a suspect, where a protocol was followed.

For example, two officers in the case of Kelly Thomas, who beat Thomas to a bloody pulp, were found not guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Thomas was taken to the hospital and died five days after being savagely beaten.

There was surveillance video in this case. It showed police saying things like, “Do you see my fists?…They’re getting ready to fuck you up,” and, “We ran out of options so I got to the end of my Taser and I … smashed his face to hell.” But the jury found the officers not guilty because the lawyers were able to point to the footage and convince them he had been struggling against police. The police had called for backup because they needed help. So, Thomas should not have “resisted” if he wanted to survive the encounter with police.

Which leads to one critical point that should be emphasized: police authority is shown great deference in the courts, in the media and among citizens. (Just think of all the cop shows that Americans watch.)

Couched in protocol, use of force by police—what may appear to be police brutality—can become reasonably justified through the efforts of defense attorneys like the ones in the Kelly Thomas case who helped the officers avoid jail time for their brutality.

The transparency created by body-mounted cameras will only benefit society to a certain extent. Beyond that, there is the issue of power and privilege in communities. Disparity between police action in communities of predominantly white people versus communities of people of color will have to be addressed meaningfully or else there will be absolutely no reason for those communities to feel reassured by the fact that police now have to record their actions.

It’s already difficult to bring cases against police officers and win. If police can avoid being held accountable for not turning on their cameras, what use will it be to have law enforcement agencies buy the devices? Officers will know they don’t have to fear administrative action or possible criminal prosecution and proceed to exercise control over their cameras however they please.

Photo by thisisbossi under Creative Commons license

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."