I love getting press releases that describe events already nearly a week old. That’s what happened last week when the Maui Police Department notified the public that they “will” conduct yet another test of body cameras for their officers.
“Beginning Thursday, August 18, 2016, the Plans, Training, Research & Development Section of the Maui Police Department will conduct a one month feasibility study on the use of the AXON body-worn camera,” stated the news release, which wasn’t actually sent out until Aug. 24. “The cameras will be field-tested by officers in the various Patrol Districts. The results of the study will assist the Maui Police Department in making informed decisions about the implementation of this technology.”
There are a host of issues associated with police officers wearing body cameras while they’re out in the field–most notably, there’s the question of when the officer wearing the camera can turn the cameras on and off, to say nothing of how the department stores all that footage (and whether it’s available for public inspection). Numerous departments on the Mainland have adopted such cameras, though their experiences have been mixed. Some report a considerable drop in citizen complaints against officers; others are still reporting very high incidents of officer-involved shootings.
The ACLU, which generally supports the use of body cameras, does insist however that the cameras stay on all the time–a policy most police departments oppose.
“You don’t want to give officers a list and say, ‘Only record the following 10 types of situations,’” said Scott Greenwood, an attorney with the ACLU, in a 2014 report on the issues surrounding body-worn cameras. “You want officers to record all the situations, so when a situation does go south, there’s an unimpeachable record of it—good, bad, ugly, all of it. This is an optimal policy from a civil liberties perspective.”
Indeed, there have been recent incidents in which body camera-wearing cops used deadly force, then reported that their camera mysteriously “turned off” just before the shooting.
“A Chicago officer whose police powers were suspended after the officer shot an African-American teenager in the back last week was wearing a body camera, but the device was not operating and did not record the fatal encounter, officials said on Monday,” The New York Times reported on Aug. 1. “Advocates for the family of Paul O’Neal, the 18-year-old who was killed on Thursday, reacted skeptically to claims of the faulty body camera, wondering aloud why the department had invested in the technology if it did not work.”
The MPD has been conducting various camera tests largely in secret over the past year, of which this one is only the most recent. Ten MPD officers participated in a test of TASER’s AXON body-worn cameras a year ago. Earlier this summer, MPD officers tested the VIEVU cameras. It remains to be seen what cameras (if any) the department eventually adopts, to say nothing of the rules governing such cameras.
Over on Kauai, that island’s police office has already adopted body-worn cameras. The powerful police union SHOPO (State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers) filed a complaint with the state Labor Relations Board in an attempt to gain greater authority over the use of the cameras, but in January of this year the board ruled in favor of the department.
Click here for our 2015 primer on law enforcement body camera issues.
Photo of officer wearing TASER AXON camera in 2015: Maui Police Department