How police departments are ensuring the use of body cameras

After a series of high-profile shootings that went unrecorded, departments around the country are considering stricter penalties for officers who fail to turn on their body cams. 

Damian Dovarganes/AP/File
A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014.

Since their adoption by police departments around the country, body cameras have been proven to drastically reduce complaints, use of force incidents, and confusion over officer-said-civilian-said situations.

But, of course, that's only when the police turn their cameras on. As several law enforcement officers have come under fire in recent months for failing to record interactions that ended in shootings, departments are grappling with how to make sure all arrests and use-of-force incidents are caught on camera.

A number of large cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, New York, New Orleans, San Diego, and Oakland, do not have specified penalties for when officers don't use their cameras, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. After a series of unrecorded shootings in Chicago, San Diego, and Albuquerque, and elsewhere, civil rights activists say that this needs to change. 

"If police have discretion, and certain times cameras are not turned on or turned on too late, people will see [police] manipulate body cameras," Chad Marlow, the ACLU of New Mexico's advocacy and policy counsel, told VICE News. "The guidelines for body cams should [give police] no discretion whatsoever on when they should or should not be used."

In some places, such as San Diego, police departments have adjusted their policies to make turning on body cameras mandatory, rather than optional. But without strict penalties laid out, many officers don't feel the need to comply.

One study of body cam usage in one high-crime neighborhood in Phoenix, Ariz., between April 2013 and May 2014 found that officers recorded only 6.5 percent of traffic stops, despite a department policy requiring that cameras be activated "as soon as it is safe and practical." And in Denver, Colo., a report on the city's six-month trial with body cams revealed that only one in four encounters involving force were actually recorded. 

Some departments have now begun to enforce stricter penalties for officers who fail to record, some in response to high-profile incidents. Last November, two deputies with the Alameda County Sheriff's Department were caught on surveillance camera beating a suspected car thief with their batons in San Francisco's Mission District. Out of the eleven officers who responded to the scene, ten did not turn on their body cameras. The eleventh hit the record button by accident.

Though three officers were placed on leave and two charged, none of the responding deputies were disciplined for failing to record, because the agency did not require its officers to use their cameras at the time. Now, the department requires officers to turn on their cameras in most circumstances and has established disciplinary measures for those who don't. 

Other agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, plan to eliminate any chance of an officer failing to record by using new cameras that begin recording automatically when a patrol car siren is turned on or a gun is removed from its holster.

But some law enforcement leaders say cameras don't need to be used all the time, and in some cases shouldn't be used, to best complement the nuances of policing. In Oakland, a city with a 95 percent success rate in recording use of force incidents and no specific penalties for officers who don't record, department policy allows officers to turn off their cameras while discussing strategy or making tactical decisions. 

"I guess I can see why from a public defender perspective it may appear to be suspicious but the reality is that officers have to have conversations that shouldn't necessarily be recorded," Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent told NBC Bay Area. "Sometimes there would be tactical decisions they want to talk about how they're going to tactically approach some particular scene that ... we don't record."

Beyond their practical purpose of providing evidence in disputed cases, it's important that body cameras are utilized as much as possible in order to strengthen community-police relations, experts say. 

"The main motive of body cameras is to provide openness and transparency, and build trust in the police," said Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, to the Associated Press. "If officers are not turning cameras on, well, you're not going to build trust. You're going to reinforce the cynicism that already exists."

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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