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Police Shootings Underline Need for Body Camera Policy Overhaul

Posted by Joseph Tully | Aug 29, 2016

At Friday's funeral for 23-year old Sylville Smith who was tragically shot on August 13 by Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown after fleeing a traffic stop, family and friends decided to focus on memories, not on whether police body camera footage would be released. But Milwaukee residents are still demanding transparency, outraged that authorities haven't released the video of the shooting.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn reported that the footage shows Smith was armed. The public wants proof, but Wisconsin Department of Justice, Attorney General Brad Schimel says the footage likely won't be released to the public unless charges are filed.

More and more police departments across the nation are requiring officers to wear body cameras – and for good reason. Police-worn body cams provide the ultimate in police accountability and transparency and the fact is: police are working for us and acting in ‘We the People's' name. Good cops can be quickly and publicly exonerated. Bad cops can be removed from the streets and prosecuted. It's a definite win-win situation. At least, it could and should be.

Policies Must Be Defined Regarding Public Release, Recording Requirements and Police Access to Footage

Departmental policies regarding police body cameras are severely lacking. Guidelines defining when to release video to the public are inconsistent, ill-considered, and in many places unwritten, even though public release of footage showing a justified shooting could avert a riot and fatalities. DC Mayor Muriel Bower released police body camera footage soon after 63-year old Sherman Evans was shot three times after refusing to put down a pellet gun, a move that likely prevented serious public outrage. This is what body cams are for.

Another good place to start, and it seems ridiculously obvious, would be policy requiring that the camera be turned on. On July 28, when 18-year old, unarmed Paul O'Neal was shot in the back by a Chicago police officer after an alleged stolen car chase, the shooter's camera was turned off. It allegedly only began recording right after the shooting when police were still on the scene. Other officers were able to record much of the incident, but they didn't get footage of the shooting itself.

There should be no question as to whether or not an officer should have been recording. Officers should record every civilian interaction from start to finish. This would forever put to bed any doubt as to whether an officer should have been recording. Digital storage is ubiquitous and cheap. Digital video can wirelessly be downloaded from a camera to a hard drive with enough space to store high-quality HD footage for years. Policy should also require daily battery and function checks. Officers should be held accountable if their “battery was dead” or the “camera wasn't working” or the litany of excuses I see in cases across the country.

Perhaps most disturbing, almost all police departments have policies that allow cops to view their body cam footage before filing incident reports or speaking with investigators. If footage doesn't show incriminating evidence, the cop could just simply “forget” that part of the incident in his or her report. If we want body cameras to promote integrity and accountability, allowing cops to view the footage before making a statement contradicts the purpose.

Study Shows Shocking Void In Police Body Camera Departmental Regulations

Public protests following the 2014 shootings of 18-year old Michael Brown and 17-year old Laquan McDonald helped to drive our nation toward use of police-worn body cameras. On December 1, 2014, the Obama administration announced it would provide $75 million to police departments for body cameras, training programs, technical assistance and research funds over a three-year period.

Currently, at least 42 of 68 major U.S. city police departments have body-worn camera programs with policies in place. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn has published a study that evaluates eight criteria on police body-worn camera programs across 68 major US city police departments. Results of the study found that, of the 68 departments examined:

  • 63% have body worn camera programs with policies in place, though half don't make their policies easily and publicly available.
  • 35% have policies that clearly describe when officers must record.
  • 18% have policies that protect vulnerable individuals' privacy, e.g. victims of sex crimes, requiring informed consent to record.
  • None had policies requiring officers to file their written report before reviewing relevant footage.
  • 16% are required to delete unflagged footage within six months.
  • 19% expressly prohibit footage tampering and unauthorized access and require logging/auditing of all access to recorded footage.
  • 7% expressly allow individuals filing police misconduct complaints to review all relevant footage (Chicago, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Parker Colorado, and Washington DC).
  • None limited the use of biometric technologies (facial recognition) to identify individuals in footage.

Two departments (Fresno, California and Ferguson, Missouri) failed all eight performance measures. Nineteen percent of the departments fulfilled more than two of the eight evaluation criteria.

Police Body Camera Footage Exposes Lies of Dangerous, Dishonest Cops

Aside from the obvious privacy and investigation concerns, the public is in overwhelming support of police wearing body cameras. There are endless examples of body cam footage supplying incriminating evidence against cops who try to lie and cheat their way out of a murder conviction.

When officer Ray Tensing shot and killed 43-year old music producer Samuel DuBose during a July 2015 traffic stop, Tensing said he fired because Dubose nearly ran over him with his car. Footage from Tensing's body cam showed no such thing. Tensing was fired and a grand jury indicted him on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter. He's set to go to trial in October.

Officials charged Albuquerque police officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez with second-degree murder after the 2014 shooting of 38-year old homeless man, James Boyd. The officers claimed their lives were in danger while confronting Boyd about illegal camping. Boyd had two small knives, yet, helmet cameras show police began firing when Boyd turned his back. The officers stand trial in September.

Marksville, Louisiana police officers Derrick Stafford and Norris Greenhouse Jr. are being charged with second-degree murder after firing 18 rounds into an SUV during a chase and killing 6-year old Jeremy Mardis, a passenger of the SUV driven by his unarmed father Christopher Few. Officers claimed they felt their lives were in danger as the SUV had reversed into them. Body cameras of responding officers reportedly showed no signs of imminent danger.

Police Worn Body Cameras Save Cities Millions in Police Misconduct Claim Costs

As far as expense concerns, body cameras pay for themselves – possibly five times over. Outfitting the entire New York City police department with body cameras would cost around $33 million. This seems expensive until you realize the city doled out $165 million in 2014 on claims of police misconduct.

In America, the people are the government. We don't have royalty and we don't have different standards for government representatives versus everybody else.  If the government can put cameras, stingrays and “shot spotters” which record citizens on nearly every street corner, then police officers, who get paid by the public and are accountable to the public, can wear their body cams and keep them on. Body cameras aren't going to prevent police brutality, but with proper policies in place, police will behave or pay the price.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...