Are Body Cameras Nothing More Than PR for Police Departments?
Baynard Woods speaks with an activist and public defenders about body cameras having little effect on the use of force by police officers
BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News Network, I’m Baynard Woods. A new study out last week, suggests that police body worn cameras have little effect on use of force by officers. This is the first methodologically rigorous study on the use of body cameras since their widespread adoption in the wake of highly publicized use of force incidents.
The study began as Washington D.C. rolled out its extensive body-cam program. The results come as a surprise even to the police chief, Peter Newsham. Newsham told NPR that the cameras help bolster the public legitimacy of the police department.
PETER NEWSHAM: I think it’s really important for legitimacy, for the police department, which is really the most important thing that we have is our legitimacy.
BAYNARD WOODS: A Columbia Journalism review investigation into the use of cameras in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, showed that the media is often gullible when it comes to body camera footage allowing the departments to use them as PR.
Federal prosecutors in the District of Columbia recently fought in court, to keep body camera videos from coming before the public. They claimed it was to protect the safety of the officers, but many thought it was about protecting their public image.
Some of the footage, like what you’re seeing now, shows officers using pepper spray or throwing non-lethal grenades often at peaceful protesters, or passersby. Judge Lynn Leibovitz ruled that the videos but not their audio, could be released. The battle over the footage shows the extent to which law enforcement seeks to maintain control of this footage and the narrative.
Baltimore, where citizen cell phone video captured officers putting 25 year old Freddie Gray, into a police van as he screamed. Saw body-cam footage as a response to the widespread problems with the Baltimore police department. And yet, recent videos have shown that the body cameras have changed police behavior in Baltimore but not for the better. In more than one case, it appears police were planting drugs that the department later claimed they were “recreating” their discovery of the drugs. According to public defender Todd Oppenheim, it’s hard to know the extent of what is happening.
TODD OPPENHEIM: It’s still a young technology that they prosecutors are feeling out and we’re feeling out. We don’t even know if there’s some more nefarious stuff going on.
BAYNARD WOODS: Isabelle Lipman, his colleague, sees the problem as more fundamental.
ISABELLE LIPMAN: It’s not so much that I think there’s mass manipulation of the video. Maybe be there is. It’s just that when it gets turned on at all. Why should it ever be turned off except that we don’t want to live in a society where every officer is recording you at every moment that he is on the street. Even the decision about when the officer turns on and turns off the video,I mean, I’ve had cases where it gets turned off right before the good stuff.
BAYNARD WOODS: Prosecutors and activists have seen some positive results. Oppenheim and Lipman, say they don’t always just have to take the officer’s word in court, and President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force which promoted body cameras, cited an earlier study that showed a nearly 90% decrease in instances of use of force where body cameras were used. At the time, many activist groups called for more body cameras but others have been suspicious of the idea of a technological fix and have seen it as a way to prevent true community controlled policing. Especially when it gives police more powers of surveillance, and they control the footage.
Payam Sohrabi of the Baltimore Block, an activist group explains his reservations.
PAYAM SOHRABI: We’re skeptical. At that time, it was a new wave across the country where police departments were now in support of body cameras but that came with certain conditions such as them being in control of the policy and procedure would be around that. When we understood that that’s how they were approaching it, we resisted it saying that it’s got to involve the public. They have certain conditions, not just a pilot where rookie officers are trying it but the first officers to wear it would be officers with bad reputations that have multiple complaints, or part of these units, such as the special enforcement section that have killed numerous people like Tyrone West.
BAYNARD WOODS: And often, when citizens do have an encounter with the police, they’re unable to obtain their own body-cam footage.
This last May you found yourself in a position where you were in need of requesting body camera footage for a case that involved yourself. What happened that day, first?
PAYAM SOHRABI: I was just heading back from work and I drove upon a police shooting. It hadn’t been the first time that I was at a scene like that but once I realized I was there, I started doing what I usually do, which is document the scene. Pretty much conduct my own investigation. As I was documenting, police were trying to disperse people from everywhere. Once I tried to assert my right to document the scene and stand on the sidewalk, the officer didn’t like it and immediately choke slammed me. Picked me up from the sidewalk and dropped me in the middle of the street.
I caught a couple of charges and initially, I wasn’t able to get the body camera footage because I didn’t take the charges to trial. Only if you take the charges to trial are you able to get those. Since I did not, I had to wait until my charges were dropped a couple months later, and since then it’s been a back and forth battle about having the right request form with the right words in it. I’m now waiting. It’s been since May. It’s October now, a long time.
BAYNARD WOODS: You just, as you were on your way over here today, you just finally from this case in May got an invoice from the city telling you that you had to pay how much for each bit of body camera footage?
PAYAM SOHRABI: Yeah. Less than 30 minutes ago, as I’m driving down here to do this interview, I got an email from the police department saying that I gotta pay them $150. $50 per video. It could be more if it took more time for them to edit it. They need $150 to show me the video of me getting my ass dropped.
BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News Network, I’m Baynard Woods with Bashi Rose.