Is it time to pause and reflect about police video?
It appears the U.S. Border Patrol has provided American law enforcement legitimate cause to pause and reflect on the use of police video, particularly, body cameras. I mentioned in a previous blog that a barista berated a friend of mine, still an active duty cop, for daring to answer another barista’s question about police body cameras by telling her the truth regarding arguments for and against police body cameras. During the rude barista’s tirade, she said, “I’d rather be filmed naked than let you cops get away with what you do.” I don’t think we have to decipher her open-mindedness on the issue. What happens when officers enter an innocent residence in error or while chasing a suspect on foot? (Yes, this happens) What happens when those people are caught on camera in legal, but compromising, situations? That footage is still open to public disclosure. Would you also rather be filmed naked, and then viewed by strangers–perhaps, a lot of them?
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
Despite the barista’s neurotic fears, and acknowledging the pros, there are also legitimate cons regarding law enforcement officers wearing body cameras. Recently, on www.PoliceOne.com, an Associated Press article written by Elliot Spagat reported that the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection is recommending against the use of body cameras (US border agency staff rejects body cameras). The reasons cited were refreshingly “old school,” as the reasons reflect the concerns of cops as human beings. And, I’m saying this despite numerous officers being exonerated of wrongdoing due to vehicle and body camera footage. Still, the objections are valid and should be considered.
A distraction and morale suffers.
According to the article, “The yearlong review cited cost and a host of other reasons to hold off, according to two people familiar with the findings who spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings have not been made public. It found operating cameras may distract agents while they’re performing their jobs, may hurt employee morale….” They also cited difficulties with the hot, dry weather conditions for agents stationed on the southwest border experience.
The training many officers initially received on dash cam videos demonstrated that many officers concerns are valid. I remember attending in-car video training several years ago. One of the issues of concern instructors attempted to dispel immediately was that administrators and supervisors would proactively cull videos for use in disciplining or even retaliating against officers. Our instructor assured us videos would never be used in “fishing” expeditions against officers. Every officer in the class snickered with skepticism. Talk to any officer today, and you’ll find evidence that vindicates the skeptics.
Video “fishing expeditions”
Prior to the Department of Justice (DOJ) arriving in Seattle and presenting their bogus investigation findings, Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) investigations were relatively infrequent with some officers having gone without receiving a white envelope with a red stamp in their department mailboxes for years. I went nineteen years, all on the streets in patrol, without being a “suspect” officer in an investigation before the DOJ consent decree debacle. Following DOJ’s arrival I was investigated several times, mostly from internal, department initiated charges. Today, it is rare to find any officer who hasn’t been under investigation for some alleged violation. And video is often the weapon used to find these allegations.
Now, even examples of police excellence are often questioned
An example: Before I retired I was involved in what would normally be viewed as an exceptional example of great police work. Several units responded to a report of a knife-wielding suspect threatening a gas station owner. On arrival we determined that not only had the suspect threatened the store owner with a knife, he’d also punched her. We arrested him, recovered a knife as well as items that indicated the suspect may have been posing as a police officer (though not during this incident).
After receiving information from the primary investigating officer, we arrested the suspect. After the arrest, while waiting for the primary officer to gain additional information from the victims, one of the officers determined the suspect’s vehicle would be impounded, as it was blocking access to the gas pump island. Prior to a tow truck arriving to hook the car, officers routinely inspect the car’s interior and trunk to be sure there is nothing hazardous in the vehicle. In fact, policies and procedures at the time dictated officers do this. One officer did this.
From my location, I could see a cardboard box, a piece of rope and maybe some other innocuous items within the trunk—essentially nothing of note. So innocuous, later, I barely recalled that portion of the incident. Subsequent to the inspection, the suspect’s sister arrived at the scene. The suspect requested his sister take possession of the car rather than it being impounded. The officer who’d inspected the trunk cancelled the tow truck and allowed the sister to take the car.
Recap: We’d arrived in time to stop any further assault against the victim and arrested the armed suspect, confiscating a knife from him. Great police work, right? Commendations all around, right? Not post-DOJ. Resulting from this investigation, every officer present was investigated for alleged wrongdoing.
The suspect–yeah, the guy who’d assaulted a poor business owner, punched her and threatened her with a knife–filed a complaint contending the officers had conducted an unlawful search of his car’s trunk. Due to the fact that the suspect’s sister was allowed to take the car—by officers at the scene, it was no longer an “impound” therefore investigators determined that the inspection of the trunk was illegal. OPA investigated we three officers for an “illegal” search. Despite only one officer having physically inspected the trunk, they also investigated the other two officers: the primary officer, who was inside the store interviewing the victim and witnesses, and me, standing by with the prisoner in the parking lot. Apparently, they investigated us simply for being on the property at the time the vehicle inspection occurred.
The officer who inspected the trunk was sanctioned for conducting an “illegal” search, and the primary officer and I were eventually “cleared” but were referred to our supervisors for further “training.” Training in what? How to stand inside a store or in a parking lot while another officer peeks into the trunk of a car?
This is where the camera issue comes back into play. In training, we were all taught some basic protocols. One was that sometimes the vehicle camera direction simply wouldn’t be pointed at where the “action” is occurring. After all, Steven Spielberg isn’t on scene directing this stuff. On arrival at an incident where a suspect has assaulted a victim and is armed with a knife, officers are not concerned with where their cameras are aimed, only their guns. Another protocol taught was if there is no audio to go with the video, there is no video. On arrival, my car happened to be pointed toward the west exterior wall of the store. The incident was taking place in the parking lot on the north side and the suspect’s car was at the west fueling island. When I arrived, I parked, jumped out of my car and ran to assist the other officer in taking the armed suspect into custody.
Due to the parking lot configuration, the other officers’ vehicles were also facing directions not where the arrest was taking place (suspects and victims rarely stand still). In this instance, because the audio was not married to the video, officers were taught video was not required.
Still, each one of us was investigated for not activating our video cameras during the incident. Having done great police work, protected a victim and arrested an armed suspect, my two fellow officers were officially sanctioned for not having their cameras activated during the incident. I only ducked the same fate because, during my transport of the prisoner to the precinct, I had activated my camera, videotaping the suspect in my backseat. Therefore, I actually had video of at least a portion of the incident recorded–a technicality. How I actually remembered to turn the camera on at all is a mystery to me. We were all still getting used to something very new to us.
Let reason, not emotion,inform policy
The Border Patrol’s findings give us a valid reason to pause and take a hard look at both the benefits and liabilities of these developing technologies and how best to deploy them without neglecting the humanity of those required to wear them. I wonder: would the politicians so interested in cops wearing body cameras be interested in wearing them too. After all, they are public servants.