What Body Cams Do: Resolving Complaints Against Officers

In our ongoing examination of the impacts body cameras have on policing, we turn next to one of the clearest areas they make a difference — providing evidence when citizens complain about officers' conduct.

by / August 2, 2019

Editor's note: This is the fourth part in a series about body cameras in the U.S. To follow along with the series, click here.

THE EARLY DAYS

It was probably 2009 or 2010 when the police departments in the U.S. first started toying around with body cameras in earnest. And that’s largely what it was in those days — experimental deployments. That was the case in Aberdeen, S.D., whose police department was the first U.S. user of Axon body cameras (the company supplying them was called Taser at the time; it has since changed its name to Axon).

When the department first started using them in March 2010, its current police chief, David McNeil, was a captain whose areas of oversight included detectives and IT systems. Another captain in the department happened to stop by a Taser booth at a conference in 2009, only to realize that his agency was exactly who the company was looking for.

“They wanted to test this in a cold weather environment, so that was one thing they got excited about … unfortunately in South Dakota, we get six months of cold weather sometimes,” McNeil said.

The next year, the department started using the cameras. And they were hooked — they’re still Axon customers today. When they first started, they had a handful of cameras that went out each shift. Today, every one of the agency’s nearly 50 sworn officers has their own camera.

By the time Michael Brown was killed in 2014, a handful of the largest police departments in the country had started using body cameras — Phoenix got them in 2013, followed by Dallas, San Francisco and San Diego in 2014. San Diego, which has about 1,800 officers, started out with something like 500 cameras that it rolled out to patrol officers except sergeants and specialized units.

While Ferguson, and the questions of racial injustice that it raised, may have led many departments to take on body cameras in the years following, it was not a piece of the decision in San Diego and Aberdeen.

“It was just about a transparency issue, and a tool basically that officers would be able to use so we would be able to determine what happened,” said San Diego PD Chief David Nisleit.

By most accounts, the people who were to wear the cameras didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. They weren’t outright hostile to the idea, but like many new kinds of technology, they had a user problem: People didn’t see why they were important, and they were worried about all the little ways that using them might go wrong. Maybe an officer forgets to turn on their body camera when they’re supposed to, which means they get punished. Maybe a suspect could grab a cord attached to a camera and wrap it around an officer’s throat. Maybe the cameras would pick up on routine conversations officers had, and the department would begin to crack down on harmless grumblings.

Mostly, they were annoyed at the prospect of having one more thing to carry around.

“The officers weren’t necessarily enthused about it,” McNeil said. “If you think about it, as an officer, you’re asked to carry a lot of tools and instruments.”

COMPLAINTS

It didn’t take all that long for police officers in Aberdeen and San Diego — and many other departments — to come around to body cameras. It helps when they start seeing complaints against officers quickly dismissed because video evidence paints a different picture than the one the citizen paints.

“My perspective is they’ve been very beneficial, especially when it comes to complaints,” Nisleit said. “It’s no longer he-said-she-said; we’re able to review the footage and see what happens.”

McNeil agrees. He pointed to a time when a driver came in complaining that an officer had issued her a citation for failing to stop at a stop sign. It was a route she drove every day — the kind a driver gets to know so well that it becomes boring. She “knew in her heart” that she had stopped, and felt the officer was picking on her.

The video showed her rolling through the stop sign. When she watched it, she apologized and left. McNeil feels the incident strengthened the woman’s trust in the police department; they had taken her seriously and treated her according to the law.

“We’ve used them long enough, from an officer’s perspective, that they understand that this has value … this is their insurance policy,” he said.

Surveys have suggested that the majority of police officers support body cameras, though the numbers aren’t as high as public support for body cameras.

But people whose work revolves around everyday contact with police officers say with conviction that those cops come to value the cameras over time. And it doesn’t have much, or anything necessarily, to do with protecting citizens against police. It has much more to do with protecting police from the citizens.

In San Diego, Police Lt. Tristan Schmottlach said that many officers will immediately push for their cameras to be replaced in the event of any kind of equipment failure. Michael Gennaco, a consultant who provides independent oversight to several police departments, said that in his experience, officers who are initially skeptical about body cameras come to appreciate them over time, especially for the protection they provide against false and exaggerated claims. Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and Lisa Judge, Seattle’s inspector general for public safety, both agree.

“Now you have officers who tell you, ‘I wouldn’t do this job without a body-worn camera,’” McNeil said.

Studies of police departments in Rialto, Calif., Mesa, Ariz., and Phoenix all found dramatic reductions in citizen complaints after body camera rollouts. Interestingly, though, a survey of law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum published in 2018 found that about 92 percent of respondents named accountability, legitimacy and transparency as the primary reason for deploying body cameras. Reducing and resolving complaints was the main reason for 1 percent of the agencies.

A survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics had very different findings. In that study, 81 percent of participants said they bought body cams to reduce and resolve civilian complaints. Only 34 percent said they did it to reduce use of force.

There are many positives for police and citizens if body cameras are resolving complaints faster and more accurately. When the complaints have merit, it means citizens have better evidence than their word. If they don’t have merit, officers are protected from punishment for things they didn’t do.

Grant Fredericks, an expert witness in cases involving video evidence and owner of a testing lab for body cameras, said he sees evidence of this in real-world incidents.

“What I see happening is there’s a quicker resolution in these complaints in the right direction and as a result of that I think it’s building trust between the department and the community,” Fredericks said.

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.


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