• Body Cameras

    Author : August 10, 2017

    In light of the recent issues between police and the community, many departments have taken the initiative in requiring their officers to wear body cameras, in addition to the dashboard cameras usually installed on police vehicles. The aim is to increase transparency and clear up any disputes when there are allegations of police violence. However, in at least one city, implementing body cameras may have one unexpected result.

    In Baltimore, two incidents that were found through the use of body cameras shows officers appearing to plant drug evidence. Public defenders are arguing that cases be dropped, and so far, about 40 criminal cases have been dropped this year. This is just the latest in a series of scandals facing Baltimore PD, already under scrutiny for racketeering offenses, robbery, and extortion. The way body cameras work varies from department to department, but they can have a significant effect on the way videos are filmed. In Baltimore, when a police officer hits record, the device saves the preceding 30 seconds, before it starting ‘recording’, although there is no audio. In one video, right after what appears to be an officer placing a small plastic bag filled with white pills in a lot, the officer pushes ‘record’ – so he likely did not realize the previous 30 seconds would have been saved.

    Unfortunately for Baltimore, it was the public defenders who discovered the existence of these videos – not the State’s Attorney’s unit which is designed to review and disseminate such footage. On top of that, the police unit which is supposed to review the hours of footage also failed to catch these videos. In addition to concerns from defense counsel about how many cases are affected by police planting drugs, there are major questions about what the state is doing (or failing to do) with these videos when in front of a grand jury. The grand jury proceedings are entirely secret – so there is no way to determine what exactly what occurs in front of said grand jury.

    While body cameras have clearly started to make a difference in monitoring the police’s behavior, there is still some issue with individual officers using these videos. Most departments around the country require body cameras to stay on the entire time the officer is dealing with an incident, and that it should only be turned off if a member of the community asks them to. However, there is a serious lack of accountability when an officer decides not to follow the rules – and not just in Baltimore. The ACLU has noted that there are widespread incidents of officers who fail to comply with department policies regarding the body cameras. Often, cases will involve officers turning them off in the middle of encounters with impunity, as police management fails to do anything.

    The National Associate of Criminal Defense Attorneys agree – their research shows that cameras are used properly only about 30 percent of the time. The use of body cameras is not as effective a step as it would appear when it comes to correcting police culture. Indeed, one of the latest controversies plaguing police departments occurred in Minneapolis, when an Australian woman was shot and killed by an officer after she called for help: the officer in that incident did not have his body camera turned on as required.

    Body cameras reveal a lot about how an officer deals with the community and various incidents. But until police departments overhaul their leadership and training, and make attempts to address deep cultural issues, body cameras will simply be a band-aid on what can be a deeply flawed law enforcement system.

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