If the public can’t get them, or if only police officers are allowed to watch them, then instead of creating transparency, body cameras just perpetuate the problem. The Post has a lengthy story which shows the problems are much deeper than just body cameras.
Nationwide, police have shot and killed 760 people since January, according to a Washington Post database tracking every fatal shooting. Of those, The Post has found 49 incidents captured by body camera, or about 6 percent.
Just 21 of those videos — less than half — have been publicly released. And in several of those cases, the footage, as in Burlington, was severely cut or otherwise edited.
Meanwhile, virtually all of the 36 departments involved in those shootings have permitted their officers to view the videos before giving statements to investigators, The Post found. Civil and human rights groups fear that access could help rogue officers tailor their stories to obscure misconduct and avoid prosecution.
Even where new laws requiring use of body cameras have been enacted in the past year, they’re often accompanied by restrictions on access to the video.
While individual police departments are adopting rules on the local level, police chiefs and unions are lobbying state officials to enshrine favorable policies into law. In 36 states and the District this year, lawmakers introduced legislation to create statewide rules governing the use of body cameras, often with the goal of increasing transparency.
Of 138 bills, 20 were enacted, The Post found. Eight of those expanded the use of body cameras. However, 10 set up legal roadblocks to public access in states such as Florida, South Carolina and Texas. And most died after police chiefs and unions mounted fierce campaigns against them.
An ACLU attorney makes a very good point - why mandate body cameras if you’re not going to allow anyone to see the videos?
“If police departments and law enforcement become the sole arbiters of what video the public gets to see, body cameras will go from being a transparency and accountability tool to a surveillance and propaganda tool,” said Chad Marlow, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Are we going to let that happen?”
Even worse, while keeping the video away from the public, local jurisdictions often allow police officers involved in fatal shootings to view the video before they give statements to investigators.
In most fatal shootings where there is body camera evidence, the officers involved have been allowed to view the footage before talking to investigators. This spring, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck urged the Los Angeles Police Commission to adopt that practice as official policy.
The practice is becoming standard nationwide, thanks in part to a 2014 report funded by the Justice Department and prepared by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). The report says prior review will “lead to the truth,” and that officers will have to “account for their actions, regardless of what the video shows.”
So one set of privileged witnesses get to see the video, but not other witnesses. This creates all sorts of obvious problems, but Los Angeles adopted the policy anyway.
Civil rights attorneys and community groups argue that the practice could aid corrupt officers in covering up misconduct.
“If you are going to concoct a story that isn’t true, it is awfully helpful to know if you will or will not be contradicted by your body camera video,” said Marlow of the ACLU.
Attorney Dan Stormer, who represents the Keunang family in a $20 million claim against the LAPD, said the practice could help police discredit witnesses who disagree with the official account.
“If you get to see the video and you know exactly what happened, you can totally destroy someone else’s credibility who has a less firm view of what took place,” Stormer said.
In April, the commission voted with Beck, 3-1. Commissioner Robert Saltzman was the lone dissenter.
“Research shows that watching videos affects memory. It alters it,” Saltzman said. “If they watch it first, we will miss what the officer’s perception was at the time they used force and why they felt force was necessary.”
And, not shockingly, it turns out that the guy who wrote the 2014 report has already changed his mind.
PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler agreed, saying his position has shifted since the group issued its report. In an interview, Wexler cited academic research showing that video can “essentially erase and record over” an officer’s memory.
“If [police] are going to review the video, other [eyewitnesses] should be allowed to see it, too,” Wexler said. “How can they expect to have any credibility if they keep it to themselves?”
The opportunities for abuse in terms of testimony and cross examination of witnesses who haven’t seen the video is enormous. It’s like having your witnesses blindfolded.
When even remedial legislation to provide an accurate record of police encounters with the public can be so twisted around that the only beneficiaries are police officers engaged in questionable behavior, legislators must realize that there is no magic bullet, whether it be body cameras or other laws. Only by uprooting the culture of police arrogance and self-aggrandizement are we going to bring down the senseless number of fatal shootings and bring our police forces in line with what the community determines to be appropriate norms of behavior.