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Are Police Officers’ Body-Worn Cameras a Win for Accountability?

Questions remain about whether body-worn cameras will curb police violence.

Questions remain about whether body-worn cameras will curb police violence.

We wouldn’t know that James Boyd was turning away from three Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers when they decided to fatally shoot him on March 16 in the Sandia foothills just outside the city if it wasn’t for the body-worn cameras embedded in the officers’ helmets that captured the gruesome events.

But the presence of the officers’ helmet cameras certainly didn’t prevent the officers from taking Boyd’s life, even though they were reportedly carrying nonlethal Tasers in addition to their guns.

Boyd, who was homeless and had a history of struggling with mental health issues, was confronted by the APD officers for camping in an unauthorized area near Albuquerque’s city limits. After the officers’ woke him, a three-hour standoff followed until Boyd offered to go with the officers.

But as Boyd gathered his belongings, a flash grenade was fired, and he dropped his items, and allegedly, revealed a pair of knives. He then turned away as two of the officers shot six live rounds, using assault rifles, into his back. The FBI is now investigating the shooting.

The incident, along with a spate of other fatal shootings, sparked intense clashes between citizens of Albuquerque and the APD, as demonstrators flooded into the city’s downtown area in the weeks after Boyd’s killing, calling for reforms and protesting a long history of police violence by a department with one of the highest records of police shootings per capita in the nation. According to The New York Times, APD officers have been involved in at least 37 shootings, 23 of them fatal, since 2010, and many of the shootings have involved people struggling with mental health crises.

Most recently, after hundreds of residents packed into Albuquerque City Hall for a town meeting Monday night to express concerns about police violence, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released the findings of its investigation into claims of human rights abuses and excessive use of force by the APD, which the agency has been conducting for more than a year.

The DOJ released a 46-page letter, in which it found the APD “engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force,” violating constitutional rights of those shot or harmed by APD officers. In its review of 20 fatal shootings by Albuquerque police between 2009 and 2013, the report found that a majority of the APD’s victims did not pose a substantial threat to the officers or surrounding public.

The DOJ indicated it is still deciding whether to seek a monitor to oversee changes in the APD, depending on how willing the department is to make changes on its own. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has requested federal monitoring of the city’s police force and announced plans to train city field officers in handling people with mental illness in the aftermath of the uproar over recent fatal shootings at the hands of the APD.

But many Albuquerque residents have little faith in their public officials, including Mayor Berry and Police Chief Gordon Eden, who initially said that the two APD officers’ actions in shooting Boyd were justified, and that the officers who used tear gas and riot gear against protesters showed “remarkable restraint.”

“It’s not that [James Boyd’s] case is unique, but it’s unique in the sense that people actually got to see it, and it was not OK,” said Dinah Vargas, a community organizer working to end police brutality in Albuquerque. “There’s no way anybody could call that justified.”

Vargas has worked with groups such as the Albuquerque Task Force on Public Safety, the Community Forum on the APD Crisis and family members of police-perpetrated shooting victims to draft a list of demands in regard to ongoing police violence in Albuquerque.

Among the groups’ demands of city officials are the firing of Chief Eden and Mayor Berry; the demilitarization of the APD, involving the reduction of the force’s military-grade equipment; an end to racial profiling; a police oversight commission with subpoena power and the authority to hire, fire and discipline; a dismissal of all charges against protesters; an indictment of all officers involved in shootings; a non-police emergency response team of trained mental health professionals to be present in all possible deadly force encounters; and the mandatory use of body-worn cameras on officers.

Vargas pointed to a long history of what she called “failed leadership” within the APD and alleged conflicts of interest. She also said that disciplinary action was previously taken against one member of the Police Oversight Commission who failed to take adequate action against APD officers found guilty of wrongdoing.

The APD was one of the first departments in the country to implement the use of body-worn cameras on its officers in 2012, amid a mandate from the DOJ at the peak of its investigation of complaints of civil rights abuses, according to Vargas.

But Vargas said the video released of the Boyd shooting is unique because the APD has never released video footage of a shooting in its entirety. She added that activists are still waiting on footage from another camera worn by one of the officers involved in the Boyd shooting to be released. Typically, Vargas said, the process of requesting footage is bureaucratically difficult.

“Video wasn’t always released or only portions of it were released, and equally important are the consequences of not having it roll or [the cameras] being not tamper-proof,” Vargas said. “As far as the [APD] wearing cameras, it’s obvious it has done nothing to decrease the shootings or accountability.”

Are Cameras Enough?

Like the APD, thousands of police departments around the nation are beginning to implement the use of portable cameras worn on officers’ lapels, helmets or sunglasses, which record their interactions with citizens even when outside of the view of their mounted dashboard cameras. Nearly one in every six police departments are actively patrolling with body-worn cameras, according to one expert on the matter.

These body-worn cameras are already being hailed as a success in terms of police accountability, with the force in Rialto, California, serving as the poster-child for the cameras. Rialto was one of the first cities to implement the use of the cameras in February 2012, but more importantly, one of the first places where the cameras’ impacts were studied.

A yearlong University of Cambridge study found that the number of complaints against officers fell by 88 percent in the months after body-worn cameras were implemented, and that use of force dropped 60 percent.

Police officers around the nation have had mixed reactions to the cameras’ growing use, which is expected to become the standard as thousands of departments have adopted their use in the last five years. According to The New York Times, the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called the technology “an encumbrance,” and many officers have raised privacy concerns.

“All of the media coverage focuses on this little town of Rialto. Now, it’s a very small city, very small department, so we still need to see more evidence on this,” said Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “The jury is still out on this.”

Police accountability experts and civil liberties advocates point to a lack of guidelines governing the cameras’ use and weak accountability in cases where the cameras do catch legitimate wrongdoing as a problematic policy gap during a time when police and citizens are increasingly filming each other.

Some preliminary guidelines are being drafted by a nonprofit police research and policy organization at the request of the DOJ to address how and when the cameras can be turned on and off and other issues of privacy.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s kind of the ultimate accountability tool because, as far as I know, those cameras can also be turned off,” said Brigitt Keller, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s National Police Accountability Project. “While I think it is probably a good idea, it really depends how it’s used and whether or not police officers are disciplined…. Are there consequences if the recordings show that a police officer violated policy or a police officer used excessive force?”

Keller also said the viewpoint at which many body-worn cameras are worn may not necessarily show significant details, such as whether an officer is holding a gun or not.

“I’m not overly optimistic [body-worn cameras] will lead to any change because we hear about video recordings, and we see the most egregious forms of police misconduct already, and in so many cases police officers are not held accountable,” Keller said.

Could Accountability Policies Worsen?

But reactionary policies which help to shield officers from accountability as well as evidence of widespread camera-tampering points to a sort of backlash of increased surveillance both of the cops and by the cops.

In November 2013, a secret policy was instituted by Dallas Police Chief David Brown that would allow officers to remain silent for 72 hours after a police shooting to review any evidence against them before making an official statement. The policy was instituted after a Dallas officer shot a man suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The officers’ report that the man, Bobby Gerald Bennett, moved in a threatening manner, was contradicted by a home surveillance camera.

Accountability experts say 72-hour review policies gives officers time to cover for one another by getting their stories straight, and allow officers to wait for any video footage of the incident to be released so their statements don’t contradict video evidence.

Police departments around the nation are justifying similar policies using the research of behavioral specialists including Dr. Alexis Artwohl, who is also a consultant for police departments. She has studied psychological conditions during tense situations involving the use of force and writes that officers must be aware of many factors simultaneously, such as bystanders and overall public safety concerns. Other researchers point to how the stress of tense encounters can have psychological and physiological effects on officers.

In response to this research, police departments across the country have created policies that allow review periods claiming to be in the interest of officers’ psychological needs in the aftermath of a shooting. Departments in Denver, Colorado; Spokane, Washington; and Oregon have implemented policies including 72-hour review policies for officers who have perpetrated shootings. Some of these policies have since been eliminated, according to Walker, but it could still be a sign of a worrying trend for police accountability on the horizon.

“If it was a civilian who shot someone, [police officers] wouldn’t give them 72 hours,” said Ron Hampton, former executive director of the National Black Police Association and a former police officer. “So why would we give a police officer 72 hours to get his or her story together so that they can sit and talk to someone and have all of their ‘Is’ dotted and their ‘Ts’ crossed? That does a disservice to transparency.”

As a former officer, Hampton expressed doubts about the claim that officers need time to cope with the psychological trauma of a shooting before their memories become clear. Instead, he said, officers should be interviewed immediately while their memories are still fresh.

“The officers are going to lawyer-up; there’s no question in my mind. They’re going to lawyer-up in that process, in that time. If they think they made some mistake, then how do we know that what they are going to say to you 72 hours later is accurate?”

Hampton doesn’t believe body-worn cameras are a fool-proof solution, either, telling Truthout that what is really needed is better training and education for officers in the field, as well as stronger disciplinary action.

According to Walker and Hampton, most of these review period provisions are typically included in police union contracts. “But [police officers] don’t work for the union, and they don’t work for the police department. Ultimately, they work for the citizens,” Hampton said.

In cases where specific policies and provisions are not in place, police officers have been caught tampering with devices that record them. This week, an inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found nearly half of an estimated 80 patrol cars in one South Los Angeles division were missing antennas, which record the officers’ voices while on duty.

Hampton, though, was ultimately thankful that the helmet cameras the APD officers wore captured what happened when Boyd was shot.

“Can you imagine what would’ve happened if we hadn’t seen the film?” he asked.

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