Body cams were introduced a few years back to promote police accountability and transparency, following what can only be called a national epidemic of police shootings of unarmed suspects and other cases of police brutality. However, if the police department itself controls the videos, how helpful are they?
Body cam videos are supposed to reduce the power police wield over ordinary people by recording police encounters. But the police department itself controls who can view these videos, and while departments like the LAPD have released videos to the public for high-profile shootings, these videos invariably exonerate the officer involved by showing the suspect was indeed wielding a deadly weapon.
Do Police Body Cam Videos Record Unjustified Force and Police Brutality?
In Marion County, Florida, the police body cams (which were switched on and off during a violent encounter with an unarmed suspect) were supplemented with video surveillance from a nearby business, clearly showing suspect Derrick Price giving up as a police vehicle pulls up, lying down on the pavement, and spreading his hands out away from his body in complete submission before being brutally beaten by the five cops who piled out of the vehicle.
In another more recent incident in Ft. Worth, Texas, the body cam video shows a cop using questionable force to arrest a woman and her young daughters, one of whom was recording the encounter with her phone. The police then refused to give a copy of the body worn video to the family’s defense attorney Lee Merrit. However, Merrit did get a copy, “leaked” from somebody in the FWPD. Charges against the family were dropped soon after Merrit gave the recording to the local news.
Other Civil Rights Issues Related to Police Body Cam Videos
In the above cases which made national news an entity outside of police control revealed what occurred during an arrest. In the Ft. Worth situation, police refused to give a copy of the police body cam video to the defendants’ attorney. However, police are permitted to view body worn video footage before giving a statement about an incident. This allows the officer(s) involved to tailor the statement to whatever evidence the video reveals.
Other issues raised by current policies allowing the footage to be controlled by police include
- Privacy issues / police surveillance
- Unequal access to the video recording
- Insufficient training
The company that stores the footage for police, now called Axon, was formerly known as Taser International. This is the company which previously sued two coroners for listing being tased by police as a cause of death. Axon, a.k.a. Taser International, is not known for promoting transparency and accountability. Allowing the Police Department itself along with Taser International to control police body cam videos can be compared to asking a wolf to guard the chicken coop.
Who Should Control Access to Body Cam Video Recordings?
According to Alex Vitale, director of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, the body cam video footage should be turned over to an independent agency and access to videos should be limited by search warrants and probable cause. This solution could solve a number of dilemmas about use of body cam videos, including
- Unequal access by police and defendants
- Public access privacy issues
- Police surveillance privacy issues
If police body cam recordings are supposed to protect people from excessive force and other civil rights violations, restricting access to police body worn videos and delegating control of the videos to an independent agency could curtail civil rights violations regarding how the videos are used/ who views them.
Public Perception of Police Body Cams
Many people view police body cams as tools that aid the police more than the public. If a defendant or a defense attorney cannot get access to body cam footage within a reasonable time period, while the officer involved in an incident is allowed to view the footage before making a statement, there’s clearly no transparency.
Recommendations by the American Civil Liberties Union include
- Releasing police body cam videos to the public if force was used or a complaint filed
- 5-day time limit for police to delay public release of requested video
- Redacting audio and video recordings to protect privacy prior to release
- Police must secure subject’s consent before voluntarily releasing video to public
- Officers should not be allowed to view videos involving use of force prior to making statements
While many police departments around the nation were quick to implement some or all of the ACLU’s suggestions, the Los Angeles Police Department was not among these. The ACLU sent a letter to the United States Department of Justice in 2015, urging the DOJ to refuse federal funding for body cams to the LAPD. The letter stated that the LAPDs use of body cams hindered rather than promoted the goals of transparency and accountability by police. The DOJ sent $1 million in funding to LAPD despite the ACLUs letter.
Most recently, the Los Angeles Police Commission aided by UCLA’s School of Law, NYU School of Law and others requested public feedback by filling out a questionnaire before implementing a new policy regarding public release of police body cam videos following critical incidents. The new LAPD policy should be released by late June or early July 2017. Hopefully, the LAPD will approach improved transparency with the new policy.
Call Sehat Law if Your Rights Have Been Violated by Police
If you or your loved one has been subjected to an unlawful arrest or detention or denied access to evidence after being arrested or detained by police, you need to contact an experienced Civil Rights Litigation Attorney immediately.
At Sehat Law Firm we are passionately committed to obtaining justice for victims of police misconduct. We will help you to stand up and demand justice if you or your loved one was
- Stopped and searched without probable cause
- Unlawfully detained without due process
- A victim of excessive force or police brutality
- Subjected to unlawful behavior or treatment on the part of the police
We can allow a jury to decide if justice was served in cases where police refuse to disclose body cam video footage within a reasonable length of time or if the police don’t turn on their body cam before the encounter and run it for the entire time. By contacting the Sehat Law Firm, you will be helping to demand transparency and accountability from police in your community.