As we march into the 21st Century, there is more talk about cameras in police work. Cameras inside patrol vehicles, recording what is happening outside it. Cameras inside the vehicle, recording what’s happening inside of it. Cameras that record the rear of the vehicle, cameras mounted onto designated eyewear of an officer, and recording everything they may be seeing from that vantage, and cameras attached to an officer’s chest, and shoulder, and pretty soon the conversation appears to be what it is; a mess.
Many departments are rushing to purchase cameras, increasing their digital evidence storage, ensuring their digital evidence systems are up to the task of today’s demands. And while cameras do provide an excellent source of evidence, they also come with a litany of management tasks, particularly, reviewing, redaction, and storage tasks that take agencies further away from police work, and more towards the big digital data industry.
The recordings from these cameras can be used for two main purposes: evidence, and satisfaction for public records requests. It’s easy to sum up the purposes of camera footage, but it’s much more difficult to fulfill those purposes, without a plan, and without proper expectation of what video can do, and cannot do.
Both body and dash-mounted cameras have become a hot topic recently, mostly not because of their distinct advantage in collecting digital evidence for criminal prosecutions of citizens, but because they provide a perspective in encounters leading to use of force. And that desire to critique is leading to a wave of ill-informed opinions, expectations, and pursuit of unrealistic standards that will dement safe and sound tactics for everyone from patrol, to detectives, to parole officers, and everyone else involved in investigations, detentions, and arrests.
More and more, as law enforcement agencies become less independent of the communities they serve, and more dependent on grant programs provided by federal government, agencies are having to weigh more of their productivity in terms of liability. And in 2015, federal government implemented a body camera purchasing program, wrote a memorandum stating that the universal use of body worn cameras would reduce “enforceable” complaints against law enforcement, and then issued almost the same opinion in a comprehensive study of policing in the modern era.
Regardless of your position on the issues at hand, it has been proven that cameras, both in a patrol vehicle, and affixed to an officer, have come in handy in a variety of ways and most polarized, in use of force encounters that journalists, and some citizen groups called into question using their preferred methods of communication. When it comes to the concept of “Trial by Media,” one can see instantly that a camera angle that directly answers the objection, or question presented, is the best way to silence critique of law enforcement operations and tactics. But what it doesn’t do is change the narrative. An unfortunate reality for law enforcement, is that ten thousand videos of use of force that show clear, justifiable cause for that action, can’t buy respect to simmer emotions over one video that shows questionable tactics, or even worse and more common, good tactics that manage to look questionable.
This is an unfortunate set of circumstances that law enforcement is facing, and while some members of the public would point to law enforcement itself for the cause of this irrational point of view, it is clear that the over-arching lack of trust in government has played a big part in why citizens distrust local law enforcement today, as opposed to views held ten years ago.
With a set of unfair conditions to work against, in addition to individual encounters with criminals that bring the unexpected, it’s becoming hard not to record each and every incident police are involved in, for the sheer factor of professional and personal liability that can be attached. And from the perspective of each agency, liability has become a much bigger risk to contend with, than officer’s claims to personal injury. When an agency has to weigh liability exposures more than their officer’s injuries, it can be concluded there is a serious problem in need of address.
This is the first in a series of articles to examine the use of cameras in police work. We will be looking at their history of use, their impact in criminal, civil, and other legal proceedings, their dissemination through Freedom of Information Act requests, and how each of these uses impacts public expectations, government accountability.
A Brief History on Cameras in Police Work
Clearly, the initial intent behind cameras was to capture interactions that could be used in evidence for criminal prosecutions. Many don’t remember this, but the use of dash-mounted cameras dates back to the 1930’s by both the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department. Their systems were quite crude for today’s standards. Imagine those old 35 millimeter film cameras from movie sets, with an apparatus to mount on to that makes the modern day laptop mount look like a pocket device. The Los Angeles Police Department was cutting holes into the front portion of their patrol cars to mount cameras around the same time. By the 1970’s, both agencies had systems that placed a secure videocassette recorder (VCR) in the trunk of a patrol vehicle, with a camera hard wired to it, of course mounted on the dash.
In the 1980’s, retired Berea (Ohio) Police Department Detective Bob Surgenor is credited as being an innovator in the “dash” camera concept, when he developed a mount that locked his personal tape camcorder into his passenger seat, and recorded all the activity he was involved in when he was a patrol officer. Eventually, he captured a vehicle pursuit from beginning to end, including the arrest of the suspects, which was the first ever pursuit recorded, and the video of that incident was widely publicized, and led to the beginning of a show you may have heard of, “World’s Wildest Police Videos.” His Chief felt recording video from this perspective was a great idea, and soon the concept took off in the agency, and eventually around the country.
Soon, dash mounted cameras were being developed, installed, and the footage was in court, primarily as a way to show judges and attorneys the evidence of drunk driving on the part of arrestees, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving supported the effort with financial backing.
Of course everyone in law enforcement remembers watching the death of Nacogdoches County Constable Darrel Lunsford unfold on January 23, 1991, considered the first line of duty death recorded by dash camera, a camera that Lunsford purchased and installed himself. The manner in which Lunsford died was, and still is tragic. Three men in the vehicle he stopped were able to take advantage of him quickly, eventually shooting him with his own service revolver. Because the incident was on tape in its entirety, responding personnel were able to make copies of the video, and show it to officers in hopes of identifying the suspects, and ensuring all those searching for the parties knew exactly who to look for. The strategy worked, and by the end of the week, all three were in custody.
The video quickly began making the rounds as a ‘teaching moment’ in Texas law enforcement circles, when Texas State Trooper Andy Lopez Jr. saw it eight months later, and in September of the same year found himself in a very similar scenario on a traffic stop. In this encounter, one of the suspects already had a gun, and when the three suspects tried to close distance on Lopez, he pushed the armed suspect to the ground, creating distance between himself and all three while drawing his service weapon and firing on the armed suspect. The other two ran from the area, later captured in a patch of woods nearby. The armed suspect, continued to fire from the ground, while Lopez used cover and concealment to his advantage, while firing. The suspect died on scene before help arrived, and Lopez walked away with one gunshot that left non-debilitating injuries. Trooper Lopez was questioned about his response to the incident, and stated that watching the video of Constable Lunsford is what helped him navigate the incident, and attributed it with saving his life.
From this point forward, dash camera footage was not only considered digital evidence, but now a training tool. And the video from this incident has been played in thousands of academy classes all over the country, and still is to this day, and has led to a number of videos making similar rounds in academies, roll calls, and in-depth training seminars.
Dash camera footage has also been able to show when officers make mistakes, and when they did the right thing. In both instances, the evaluation was in the pursuit of both criminal cases, and civil litigation.
A famous example of this occurred in Tomah, Wisconsin in 2011, when Seth McCloskey exited his vehicle and opened fire on the officers on scene. Both returned fire, one with his patrol rifle, and the culmination of gunfire led to the death of McCloskey, behind the wheel of his pick-up. Both officers faced a brief inquiry, due to an eye witness coming forward that stated officers misinterpreted the activities of the suspect. Very quickly the dash camera footage put an end to that line of thinking, and while camera footage had long before this moment exonerated officers in a number of complaints, the prepared civil action that McCloskey’s family were attempted was known to be somewhere in the eight figure range. A single video stopped practical liability altogether, and so began the idea that law enforcement could be quickly judged, for better or worse, by way of the camera.
Dash Cameras have a long history in law enforcement and have been instrumental in seeking judgement in an array of criminal cases. Their place in law enforcement is well cemented, and not many people would argue against them. But, they have an advantage that body worn cameras don’t have. They are relatively stationary. True a dash camera can be panned from one angle to another, at the front windshield of a patrol vehicle, but most likely, it’s videotaping at the absolute front of the vehicle, mostly in attempt to capture traffic stops, collision scenes, and many other traffic-related incidents.
And because of that simplicity, and perspective of seeing all parties involved, it’s quite easy to see how people become fully attached in their opinions and ideas to the stationary camera. And while this has become commonplace among those that are uneducated in police work, the next evolution in that line of thinking is equally, if not more dangerous.
From the near full use of dash cameras, we’ve now hit upon a time in America where cameras have become a solution to on-going problems. Parking lot hit and runs, shop lifters, vandals, workplace violence, people merely walking down the sidewalk, cameras are used to capture of a lot of people, things, and activities. And much of that effort is attributed to the real, live use and purpose of dash cameras.
But the next step has been body cameras. Eventually people saw the limitations of dash cameras, and the conversation started “What if we could see everything from the officer’s perspective?”
And after a number of communities felt they were swamped in citizen complaints against their police, a study of body worn cameras was initiated in Rialto, California. The findings of the study were eye opening for Rialto. Prior to this study, they averaged 65 Use of Force incidents for the previous three years. In the year the camera study occurred, that number dropped to 25.
The year prior to the study netted 24 citizen complaints. The year of the study, only three complaints were generated.
While the study was thorough, and well thought-out, the issue appears that it created a sterile environment. One of the findings of the report was that people tend to “adhere to social norms and change their conduct” when faced with a camera recording them. While it can be safely assumed that cameras will produce favorable behavior from a number of citizens, we really have to consider the time of this study, and compare it to the modern time. The study was a short four years ago, roughly. But so much in that time has changed, and the cameras themselves are proving something much different when it comes to how citizens behave in front of them, especially when interacting with police.
The thing that made body worn cameras a definitive answer, due to their interactive nature, and the perspective has now become a hurdle. Chest-level perspective has been proven to not capture every detail that the officer wearing see’s in real time. Case in point, the officer-involved shooting of Omarr Jackson in New Orleans on January 7, 2015. Jackson pulled a firearm out shot at the two officers who were chasing him, after he fled from an affected ‘Terry’ stop the officers made of him. And after the video came out a long discussion via the New York Times occurred, where Professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer now teaching law at the University of South Carolina has pointed out through his work, is that the perspective the viewer holds prior to watching a video showing force used by an officer, is likely the same opinion you’ll hold after watching the video. Our perceptions will ultimately inform everything we think, and no video will change that perspective, no matter how much it challenges what we think we know.
As we can see, there are number of events, considerations, laws, policies, and then case law that is factoring into the conversation concerning cameras, their role in our work, and what the expectations are for us, both unrealistic and realistic. One can conclude that while bringing a sophisticated camera program into their agency can be a great tool, as with any tool, there are limits that we can expect to reach, and that officer safety will always trump camera considerations, even if it means the camera doesn’t capture exactly what occurred in a given incident. Remaining level headed is a paramount for both line officers and administration in what a camera can bring, and what it cannot. Check back next week as we look deeper into the use of camera footage as digital evidence in criminal prosecution.
Be safe out there!