Though they’ve been studying body cameras for the last couple years, the Maui Police Department is only now equipping officers with the devices. According to Gregg Okamoto, the MPD’s public information officer, 89 patrol officers in the Lahaina, Kihei, Hana, Lanai and Molokai districts now wear body cameras.
The promise of police officers wearing forward-facing cameras is high: to both increase accountability of law enforcement and decrease incidents of violence and brutality. To that end, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz recently co-sponsored a new bill–along with Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and Rep. Steve Cohen, D–Tennessee–called the “Police Creating Accountability by Making Effective Recording Available (Police CAMERA) Act of 2017.” The bill would make it easier for local law enforcement agencies nationwide to get body cameras.
“The Police CAMERA Act of 2017 would establish a pilot grant program using existing funding to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies with the purchasing or leasing of body-worn cameras,” states a press release Schatz’s office sent out on Oct. 4. “It would also authorize an impact-study after two years. The study would assess the impact body-worn cameras have on reducing the use of excessive force by police, its effects on officer safety and public safety, and procedures to protect the privacy of individuals who are recorded.”
Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry is already on board.
“The resulting benefits of the body-worn cameras after almost two years of usage have greatly exceeded my expectations,” said Perry in the press release. “Not only have our officers embraced this technology wholeheartedly, but our community has commended KPD for being open and transparent.”
Perry’s statement that his department has embraced body cameras “wholeheartedly” is odd–the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) sued the department to prevent the camera deployment. Their argument was that the chief couldn’t just start issuing body cameras without their input into how they cameras would be used. In February, an Oahu Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the department, though SHOPO has said they’d appeal the decision.
That being said, it seems that Schatz can’t wait to get every department in the nation equipped with body cameras.
“We can’t restore trust between our communities and law enforcement without transparency and accountability,” said Schatz in the press release. “Body cameras alone won’t repair that relationship, but they have proven to be effective and can do a great deal to keep both police officers and community members safe and accountable.”
Schatz’s assertion that the cameras have “proven to be effective” is a great deal more controversial than he’s letting on. Sure, thanks to Stanford researchers, who waded through half a million recorded words of filmed interactions between Oakland, California cops and citizens, we have hard data that confirms that “officers in Oakland consistently used less respectful language when speaking with black people,” according to a June 5, 2017 TechCrunch story.
But are the cameras that have been deployed to various police departments throughout the U.S. over the last few years actually working to decrease violence? Well, yes and no.
“On the one hand, complaints dropped against police officers by around 90 per cent following the cameras’ introduction in several forces, which alone is a large enough effect to perhaps justify the costs of the cameras in the short term,” Rand Corporation researcher Alex Sutherland wrote in a Mar. 6, 2017 Rand blog post. “On the other hand, rates of assault against officers during arrest were higher on shifts when body-worn cameras were in use, compared to shifts where cameras were not present. Finally, the overall rate of use of force did not differ between shifts where officers wore cameras and those where they did not.”
What’s more, there’s considerable evidence out there that police body cameras aren’t nearly as helpful in promoting police accountability as originally hoped. That’s because of a little technological wonder known as the off-switch.
According to Okamoto, Maui PD officers with body cameras “are responsible for turning their cameras on and off.” He also said that it’s department policy that “Officers shall activate their cameras whenever responding to a call for service.” This is essentially having it both ways: cops need to have their cameras on when responding to a call, but they have the ability and discretion to the cameras off.
Given that we’re still in the early stages of figuring out exactly what these cameras will do, there’s still no consensus on the issue of continuous recording. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), sees it as a danger in terms of privacy, for the public as well as police officers.
“[C]rime victims (especially victims of rape, abuse, and other sensitive crimes), as well as witnesses who are concerned about retaliation if seen cooperating with police, may have very good reasons for not wanting police to record their interactions,” ACLU official Jay Stanley wrote back in March 2015. “Continuous recording would also mean a lot of mass surveillance of citizens’ ordinary activities… Continuous recording would also 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.”
The problem is that giving officers control over when the camera is on basically removes the camera’s whole accountability function. Here are seven examples, most of which are quite recent, of body cameras that simply weren’t on before a police officer used force or did something highly questionable:
• In 2014, Albuquerque cops shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, accused of stealing a truck, according to the Mar. 20, 2017 Washington Post. Though six officers were present, none of their body cameras recorded the shooting.
• “Burlington police officers powered down body cameras during a September encounter with a man in Colchester, Vermont, who was later shot by officers,” NBC 5 in Burlington, VT reported on Nov. 3, 2015.
• “On July 28 , a Chicago police officer shot unarmed 18-year-old Paul O’Neal in the back, killing him,” Newsweek reported on Aug. 6, 2016. “The officer who shot O’Neal was outfitted with a body camera. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t on during the shooting…”
• At the beginning of this year, the ACLU asked why Washington, D.C. cops were “instructed NOT to turn their body cameras on during the president’s inauguration and the following day’s ‘Million Women March.’”
• On May 15, 2017, CBS 12 in Augusta, Georgia reported that Richmond County Sheriffs Deputies Christopher Moore and Charlie Walker had racked up three violations of their department’s body camera violations. One of them involved turning off their cameras before striking a suspect with a baton.
• “Minneapolis police officer shot and killed a woman [Justine Ruszczyk] who called 911 to report an assault in an alley behind her home,” Think Progress reported on July 17, 2017. Police officials later said “officers’ body cameras were not turned on at the time and the squad camera did not capture the incidents.”
• “Baltimore police spent 30 minutes searching a car for drugs but found nothing—until they turned off their body cameras,” The Daily Beast reported on Aug. 1, 2017. “When the cameras turned back on, one cop was seen squatting next to the driver’s side where another officer immediately found drugs.”
In fact, Rand Corporation researcher Sutherland says that law enforcement agencies that give their officers discretion on turning their cameras off may actually be enabling more police brutality.
“[The] use of force was higher when officers used their discretion [to turn off cameras],” he wrote in his Mar. 6 post. “[W]e think that current evidence is clear, police officers should have cameras turned on all the time–certainly before responding to calls for service–and let the public know they are being filmed as soon as possible.”
If this is happening, if cops around the country are simply shutting off their cameras before doing something they know might turn out bad, then it’s hard to see how dumping more cameras on departments will make the streets safer for anyone. The whole purpose behind putting cameras on police officer uniforms was to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable. Simply making cameras more available around the country, without mandating additional accountability regulations and safeguards, is asking for trouble.
Click here for our 2015 primer on police body cameras.
2015 photo of Maui Police Officer Joy Medeiros courtesy Maui PD