Body Cameras: It’s 2017 and we are still relying on police recollection… why????
By: David Zwanetz
“Is it possible for a police officer to accurately recount via memory what he or she observed during times of stress? Officer reports often contain inaccuracies, which very well may be biological inequities that come with stress. So why, in 2017, when we have technology to combat both problems, do we rely on the word of a human versus HD video of exactly what happened? If police agencies’ budgets account for tasers, vests armor, eye spray, asp batons, extra mags, cuffs, gold medallions/name tags, and even Stetson cowboy hats, why can’t they make room for a body camera?”
When you hear the words Ferguson, Missouri, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s probably not Ferguson’s rich history or its proximity to St. Louis. It’s likely to be Michael Brown, the African-American 18-year old who was shot by a white officer on August 9th, 2014. Not just the town, but the entire nation was swept up in protests as some eyewitness accounts reported seeing Brown with his hands in the air, perhaps trying to surrender to the officer making the arrest. Although these accounts were later found to be unreliable and not an accurate depiction of what actually happened on that day, the famous mantra, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” heard in protests nationwide, is accredited to Michael Brown, despite there being no consistent evidence that he said those words.
In the wake of the shooting, which resulted in the deployment of Missouri’s National Guard and drew the nation’s focus via extensive coverage in the media, Ferguson put the spotlight on inherent racial biases in local police systems and contemporaneous police shootings, ultimately contributing to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The chief of the Ferguson Police Department resigned less than a year later, after being criticized by the Department of Justice for relying on “unconstitutional practices” to help balance the city’s budget through racially-motivated fines and punishments. As a result, Ferguson PD has had troubles filling vacant positions within their department, while a number of their officers quit or remain under heavy scrutiny, citing “too much paperwork” as an excuse.
Regardless of their current woes, the Ferguson PD could have benefitted heavily from the implementation of one thing: mandated use of officer-worn body cameras (hereafter referred to as “bodycams”). Just as a surveillance camera in a convenience store provided concrete evidence pertaining to events leading up to the death of Michael Brown, a bodycam worn by the officer who shot Brown could have solved a number of remaining mysteries and discrepancies, such as what exactly did Brown say and do that would lead to his unarmed death? It would also answer the question of did Brown actually raise his hands in the air and shout those famous words, “hands up, don’t shoot?”
Bodycams are high-definition, recordable cameras built in or attached to the uniform of an officer, whether it be in the center chest region or on the head; usually built into a helmet, headwear or pair of sunglasses. The video runs back to headquarters using closed-circuit TV, and would no doubt be encrypted to prevent interception by non-law enforcement sources. As the goal of the camera is to record events from the officer’s perspective, they are generally found to be the most effective way of understanding an officer’s actions in a stressful or potentially deadly situation.
Back in 2013, a study found that only 25% of all law enforcement agencies used bodycams in any way. That figure has since increased dramatically in only 4 years’ time, with metro police forces in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge and St. Louis (including Ferguson, though with much criticism) have all implemented bodycam programs and trials within their police departments. Some cities like Oakland have already encountered severe problems relating to storage of recorded data, revealing that up to 25% of all data recorded with Oakland PD bodycams had been accidentally deleted by IT vendors.
The city of Los Angeles enforces the usage of bodycams among certain law enforcement departments, but restricts withholds release of the video to the public or any other sources, including attorneys and departments of the justice system. In effect, they were prohibited from sharing bodycam-recorded video up until this year, when enough pleas from the public and a nationwide shift in perceptions of the morality of the issue are tipping the tables in favor of bodycams. Unfortunately for Ferguson, their miserable failure to obtain decision-making outcomes for court cases based on bodycam evidence has attracted yet more infamy and incredulity to the system, which provides a logical basis for a public perception that law enforcement officers in general simply do not care about basic human rights, especially among African American citizens.
So, if video evidence is proven to be the highest trusted source of evidence in court case reviews and public perception as well, why don’t all law enforcement officers have to wear bodycams? The answer of these questions comes down to a matter of local politics, state vs. fed law conflicts, and prevailing opinions on moral correctitude. Politician and lobbyist influences have the same role in this issue as they would in any other instance of legislative persuasion, in that they are going to cater to their most influential of politically-connected distributors of contributions and donations. If those happen to favor the non-introduction of law enforcement bodycams, so be it… for now.
Regardless, the march towards a federally-mandated law enforcement officer bodycam decree is underway, with a petition currently circulating aimed at the White House, demanding implementation of this measure. A string of recent academic publications all suggest the same thing: body cameras are beneficial to law enforcement. They not only improve officer compliance with proper procedure, reduce report writing error and promote positive interactions between police and citizens, but also provide definitive evidence in situations which require extensive investigation of officer actions. No longer is it necessary to rely completely on officer, suspect or witness testimony when somebody’s freedom is at stake.
Memory itself is a fluid thing, in that the brain does not store data the same way a computer would. Instead of retrieving data that permanently resides on a hard drive, your brain recollects a memory the way it would as if you were recreating the essence of a select period in time. The process has been likened to the study of paleontology; a concise quote about the fluidity of memory being:
Out of a few stored bone chips, we remember a dinosaur…
In this way, memories come and go, and are sometimes more accurately recalled than others. It is true that memories of stressful events are more strongly burned into the brain than everyday events. This is a basic, involuntary survival instinct that is built in to all living creatures by evolutionary requirement. However, peripheral details of stressful events have been found to be particularly lacking during the formation and recollection of such memories, a feature which is also evolutionarily-driven and by neurobiological design. This means that it is unlikely for anybody to be 100% accurate during the recollection of a stressful event, and therefore testimony given by an officer that is partial to their own outcome does not always stem from defensive maneuvering. Sometimes the officer is simply filling in a gap that was never initially recorded in the first place with fiction, perhaps not even realizing that is what they are doing. This is yet another piece of science-backed rationale that suggests all law enforcement officers should be required to wear bodycams.
Ultimately, it’s up to the officer if they want to turn on or utilize their camera correctly, or not. Easy excuses for failing to record events that needed recording include, “I forgot to turn it on,” or “it ran out of batteries,” or “it fell off during the struggle.” While sometimes these excuses are real, the officer must be willing to comply with bodycam regulations in the first place. They must be encouraged to use them properly from a high source of authority, such as the police chief or mayor. Until this technologically-driven shift in the collection of evidence is overwhelmingly accepted by the justice system as the right thing to do, expect there to be continued resistance to the implementation of bodycams by local police departments, even if the general trend will eventually embrace most – if not all – law enforcement agencies and officers.