The Maui Police Department will soon equip at least some of its officers with body cameras, the department announced on Mar. 20.
“The Plans, Training, Research and Development Section has scheduled a one month feasibility study on the use of body-worn cameras,” stated the department’s press release. “The study is scheduled to begin on Monday, April 6, 2015. The results of the study will assist the Maui Police Department in making informed decisions about the implementation of this technology in the future.”
And that’s all the department had to say on the matter. When I sent an email with five follow-up questions on the Maui Police body cameras a few minutes after receiving the news release, MPD spokesman Lt. William Juan refused to answer any of them. “There is no other information to be released at this time,” he said, though he did later confirm that the department’s Traffic Section has already equipped one of its vehicles with a dashboard camera.
Mainland police departments have been moving towards camera-equipped officers for years, but the news that Maui may follow suit is still surprising. Remember, this is the same department that considers photographing its officers in public a crime–in November 2012, MPD officers arrested MauiTime Publisher Tommy Russo for trying to photograph them during a traffic stop (though a judge threw out the case, the county Prosecutor’s Office is appealing the decision).
Despite the short shrift the MPD gave the project in its news release, this is a very big deal. All over the nation, heightened awareness of police shootings has led many to see the placing of cameras on cops as a way to increase accountability and lessen tensions between officers and the citizens they’re sworn to protect.
For that reason, in late 2014 President Barack Obama committed $263 million in federal funding to pay for 50,000 that would go to police departments around the country. U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, D–Hawaii, recently announced that he would support the 2015 Police Camera Act, which would provide further grants for departments that want to equip their officers with cameras. Locally, House Bill 365 HD1–which is still threading its way through the Hawaii state Legislature–would start a pilot body-worn camera program with the Honolulu PD.
Even so, the cameras remain very controversial. Some–notably police boosters–see the cameras as unnecessary intrusions on legitimate law enforcement work and worry they’ll shatter whatever trust remains between citizen and cop. Others look on the cameras as threats to citizen privacy–yet more steps toward an all-powerful police state that will use the footage to crush protests and civil liberties.
In truth, the use of cameras is still too new and haphazard to draw any generalizations about either their potential usefulness or dangers. That being said, there is enough data out there now that we can at least know what we should be aware of when the 449-member MPD begins their camera project.
What will this cost?
Who knows, but these things aren’t cheap. “The price of body-worn cameras currently ranges from approximately $120 to nearly $2,000 for each device,” stated the 2014 report Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program, produced by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). “Most of the agencies that PERF consulted spent between $800 and $1,200 for each camera. Prices vary depending on factors such as functionality, storage capacity, and battery life.” Storing all that footage can also be pretty expensive.
Will the cameras reduce tensions and violent encounters between cops and civilians?
This is the billion-dollar question. At least some departments around the nation are saying yes.
Last year, the San Diego Police Department deployed about 600 cameras. On Mar. 18 of this year, Deputy Chief David Ramirez told the San Diego City Council that the cameras had definitely made life better for everyone. According to Ramirez’s report to the City Council, complaints against cops dropped 40.5 percent and use of force incidents dropped 46.5 percent since the cameras hit the streets.
“Body worn camera technology is a win-win for the both the officer and the community,” Ramirez stated in his report. “Although only implemented for a relatively short period of time, the results are very promising, showing a reduction in citizen complaints, allegations, and a reduction of some use of force applications.”
The small town of Rialto, also in California, began using cameras in 2012, randomly assigning body cameras to officers over the course of 988 shifts. According to the COPS report, “there was a 60 percent reduction in officer use of force incidents following camera deployment, and during the experiment, the shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use of force incidents as shifts with cameras.” What’s more, “there was an 88 percent reduction in the number of citizen complaints between the year prior to camera implementation and the year following deployment.” When asked to explain the amazing results, Chief of Police William Farrar of Rialto said, “Whether the reduced number of complaints was because of the officers behaving better or the citizens behaving better—well, it was probably a little bit of both,” according to the COPS/PERF report.
Are all departments reporting such great results?
Not quite. Like Rialto, the Albuquerque Police Department has used body-worn cameras since 2012. Unlike Rialto, the Albuquerque PD still has a violent reputation–so much so that the Justice Department reported in April 2014 that “Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others.” According to a Mar. 24, 2015 ACLU blog post, “the rate of police shootings [in Albuquerque] is 4 per 100,000 people–that’s ten times higher than the rate of New York City.”
Why is Albuquerque still having so many problems?
According to the ACLU, it’s because their officers often turn the cameras off. “There was one case–Christopher Torres–where police shot an unarmed man in the back, in his back yard, while he was in his pajamas,” states the Mar. 24, 2015 ACLU blog post. “In that case, they simply didn’t turn the footage in. And that was just valid and acceptable to them. And there was the case of Mary Hawkes, a 19-year-old unarmed girl who was shot in [the] back by a police officer, who didn’t turn on the camera in that case.”
Police officers can simply turn off the cameras in the field?
Yes. Though department policies vary on this, the COPS/PERF report found that most departments allow officers discretion in turning off the cameras. Their reason is usually that the cameras foster mistrust between civilians and officers.
“Trust builds through relationships, and body-worn cameras start from a position of mistrust,” said Detective Bob Cherry of the Baltimore Police Department, who is also the president of the Baltimore City Fraternal Order of Police, in the COPS/PERF report. “The comments I hear from some officers are, ‘I’m worried that if I wear a camera, it is going to make it hard to continue the relationship I have with a business owner or the lady down the street. These are the people I’m working with now to clean up the neighborhood.’”
The COPS/PERF report also quoted one Mesa, Arizona officer as saying that cameras actually undermined legitimate police work.
“We have definitely seen people being more reluctant to give information when they know that they are being videotaped,” said Mesa PD Lieutenant Harold Rankin in the report.
Greensboro, North Carolina Police Chief Ken Miller seems to agree. “There are a lot of issues with recording every citizen contact without regard to how cooperative or adversarial it is,” Miller said in the COPS/PERF report. “If people think that they are going to be recorded every time they talk to an officer, regardless of the context, it is going to damage openness and create barriers to important relationships.”
For these reasons, PERF recommends that departments allow officers latitude in turning off cameras. “PERF believes that requiring officers to record every encounter with the public would sometimes undermine community members’ privacy rights and damage important police-community relationships,” stated the COPS/PERF report. “There are certain situations, such as interviews with crime victims and witnesses and informal, non-law enforcement interactions with members of the community, that call for affording officers some measure of discretion in determining whether to activate their cameras. There are situations in which not recording is a reasonable decision. An agency’s body-worn camera policy should expressly describe these situations and provide solid guidance for officers when they exercise discretion not to record.”
Of course, PERF also recommended that if an officer does turn off a camera, he or she should say–on camera–his or her reason for doing so.
Wouldn’t a body-worn camera that’s running all the time violate civilians’ privacy as well?
There’s certainly that concern–especially when police officers enter people’s homes. When coupled with facial-detection software, there’s the possibility of wholesale violations of civil liberties. This is already being done in Calgary, Canada, though police there insist that they take privacy considerations seriously. “We have built in and engineered all of these systems the–body worn camera and the facial recognition–with those privacy considerations,” Calgary police spokesman Kevin Brookwell told the Canadian news site Global News in November 2014.
So allowing cops to turn off cameras is the best policy?
Not according to the ACLU. “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 the COPS/PERF report. “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.”
In fact, some police departments seem to agree with Greenwood. “I disagree that cameras hurt community relationships,” said Rialto Chief of Police William Farrar in the COPS/PERF report. “We have not seen any evidence of that. People will ask officers if they have a camera on, but it does not seem to bother them.”
But the camera footage does have the capability of quelling controversy in officer-involved shootings, right?
Hopefully, but it’s unlikely because police officers and civilians will likely see the footage very differently. In a Jan. 22, 2015 NPR story, reporter Martin Kaste explored the 2014 South Carolina shooting in which a state trooper shot and killed an unarmed man at a gas station. The footage “shows a man who was reaching for his ID–a completely unprovoked shooting, to a civilian’s eyes,” Kaste reported. But a police officer Kaste interviewed looked at the same footage and saw something completely different.
“I felt my stomach tense up because I’ve seen that–and this has nothing to do with whether the incident was justified or not–but, I’ve seen that kind of quick movement before, where people have emerged with a weapon,” San Francisco PD Sergeant Adam Plantinga told Kaste. “[People] may wipe their hands on their pants, they may lower their head [or] lower their jaw to protect their neckline–sort of unconscious human behavior that means that there could be violence at any time.”
This is critical: there is no concrete definition of “excessive force.” Police officers across the country have traditionally been given pretty generous discretion in using deadly force when they feel their lives are in danger–an inherently subjective reason. It’s why nothing really changed after footage appeared of Eric Garner dying as a result of a chokehold administered by New York cops trying to arrest him.
Can body-worn cameras do any good?
Sure. They’ve actually proven useful in police officer training. “Many police agencies are discovering that body-worn cameras can serve as a useful training tool to help improve officer performance,” states the COPS/PERF report. “For example, agencies are using footage from body-worn cameras to provide scenario-based training, to evaluate the performance of new officers in the field, and to identify new areas in which training is needed. By using body-worn cameras in this way, agencies have the opportunity to raise standards of performance when it comes to tactics, communication, and customer service. This can help increase the perceived legitimacy and sense of procedural justice that communities have about their police departments.”
And when used by a department that forces officers to keep the camera rolling all the time, they can be pretty useful in weeding out bad cops.
“In Daytona Beach, Chief Chitwood requested that the officers with a history of complaints be among the first to be outfitted with body-worn cameras,” states the COPS/PERF report. “Although he found that usually the videos demonstrated that ‘the majority of the officers are hardworking, good police,’ he has also seen how body-worn cameras can help an agency address discipline problems.” In the report, Chitwood went on to explain: “We had an officer who had several questionable incidents in the past, so we outfitted him with a camera,” he said. “Right in the middle of an encounter with a subject, the camera goes blank, and then it comes back on when the incident is over. He said that the camera malfunctioned, so we gave him another one. A week later he goes to arrest a woman, and again, the camera goes blank just before the encounter. He claimed again that the camera had malfunctioned. So we conducted a forensic review of the camera, which determined that the officer had intentionally hit the power button right before the camera shut off. Our policy says that if you turn it off, you’re done. He resigned the next day.”
So how do departments keep their officers honest?
PERF recommends that departments undertake regular, random compliance checks of the footage, though they also recommend that the department’s internal audit review–and not the regular chain of command–perform the audits.
Speaking of which, how long do departments typically store their footage?
It varies. PERF found that “the most common retention time for non-evidentiary video” was 60-90 days, though some held onto such footage for less time. In fact, PERF found that the department in Fort Collins, Colorado discarded some of their non-evidentiary footage after just a week (assuming it wasn’t used in enforcement action). The COPS/PERF report also found that the Albuquerque PD held onto their non-evidentiary camera footage for a year.
To be honest, storage is difficult, though cloud solutions do exist. And there is the potential for tampering with the footage. In a December 2014 Atlantic story “Seen It All Before: 10 Predictions About Police Body Cameras,” Robinson Meyer told the story of Oakland University (Michigan) sociology professor Albert J. Meehan’s experience trying to research one department’s VHS archive.
“Close to a quarter were degaussed,” he told Meyer, meaning the tapes had been erased. “These technologies try to design and decrease opportunities for human resistance. But typically police departments still provide an off switch.”
Will such camera footage be accessible to the public?
Again, it varies, and PERF recommends a middle ground course of action with some exemptions to disclosure. “These exceptions to public disclosure can help police departments to avoid being required to release videos if doing so could jeopardize a criminal prosecution,” states their report. “The exceptions can also help police to protect the privacy of crime victims and witnesses.”
Of course, PERF also states that departments should “apply these exceptions judiciously to avoid any suspicion by community members that police are withholding video footage to hide officer misconduct or mistakes.”
Given how the Maui PD hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with information about their upcoming body-worn camera tests–and how State of Hawaii law exempts bad cop records from disclosure under the state’s open records law–I wouldn’t be optimistic.
Are body-worn cameras for police officers here to stay?
Most likely, yes. “Some prosecutors have started encouraging police departments to use body-worn cameras to capture more reliable evidence for court, particularly in matters like domestic violence cases that can be difficult to prosecute,” the COPS/PERF report pointed out. What’s more, judges and juries on the Mainland are starting to rely on such camera footage. In fact, one Baltimore detective even told PERF, “Juries no longer want to hear just officer testimony–they want to see the video.”
Of course, this has limitations. Video footage can be very important evidence in deadly force incidents, but its existence shouldn’t detract from other evidence like an officer’s training, police work and work history. Nor should it replace officer testimony in court.
Cover art: Marc Antosch
Cover design: Darris Hurst