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Ferguson and Cameras

August 18th, 2014
By Jeff Welty

According to the New York Times, the governor of Missouri is now deploying the National Guard in an “effort[] to quell unrest” resulting from a white police officer’s shooting of a black teenager in the city of Ferguson. It seems to me that much of the “unrest” is a result of a lack of factual information about what took place between the officer and the teenager. Many community members believe that the teenager was shot without provocation. The officer hasn’t spoken publicly, to my knowledge, but appears to have told investigators that the teenager, who was very large, was attacking him. As far as I can tell, there are few credible witnesses, and the autopsy results don’t determine conclusively which version of events is correct. As a result, people can and do believe very different things about the incident, making violent disagreement possible.

If the officer had been equipped with a wearable camera, we would have much better information about what happened. Even a dash-mounted camera in the car would have helped. It might or might not have captured video of the interaction, but even an audio recording would be better than nothing.

The lack of a dash-mounted camera is a bit of a surprise. Many, if not most, police departments now have cameras in every patrol car. According to the police chief in Ferguson, “his department has 18 patrol cars. This spring, the department purchased two dashboard cameras and two wearable body cameras, but the equipment hasn’t been installed in vehicles because the department doesn’t have the money to cover that cost.” Hindsight is 20-20, but the costs of dealing with the “unrest” and the forthcoming lawsuit by the teenager’s family will make that cost seem like pocket change.

The incident has led to calls to equip all law enforcement officers with wearable cameras. The Editor in Chief of PoliceOne has a column here entitled Following Ferguson, a body camera on every officer? A columnist at Slate goes even further here, arguing that all public servants, including schoolteachers, should be equipped with recording devices.

There seems to be a strong argument for wider deployment of recording devices among law enforcement, at least when officers are engaged in adversarial interactions. And the reports that I have read suggest that departments that are using wearable cameras have had good experiences. But I’m interested in others’ perspectives. Would you support or oppose a policy that provided officers with wearable cameras and required their use? Would that sour the relationship between law enforcement and the public, or be too intrusive? I welcome responses by email, or of course in the comments section.

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21 Responses to “Ferguson and Cameras”

  1. David Spence says:

    I agree with Mark Steyn’s take:

    “The most basic problem is that we will never know for certain what happened. Why? Because the Ferguson cruiser did not have a camera recording the incident. That’s simply not credible. “Law” “enforcement” in Ferguson apparently has at its disposal tear gas, riot gear, armored vehicles and machine guns …but not a dashcam. That’s ridiculous. I remember a few years ago when my one-man police department in New Hampshire purchased a camera for its cruiser. It’s about as cheap and basic a police expense as there is.

    Last year, my meek mild-mannered mumsy office manager was pulled over by an angry small-town cop in breach of her Fourth Amendment rights. The state lost in court because the officer’s artful narrative and the usual faked-up-after-the-fact incident report did not match the dashcam footage. Three years ago, I was pulled over by an unmarked vehicle in Vermont and (to put it mildly) erroneously ticketed. In court, I was withering about the department’s policy of no dash-cams for unmarked cars, and traffic cops driving around pretending to be James Bond but without the super-secret spy camera. The judge loathed me (as judges tend to), but I won that case. In 2014, when a police cruiser doesn’t have a camera, it’s a conscious choice. And it should be regarded as such.

    And, if we have to have federal subsidy programs for municipal police departments, we should scrap the one that gives them the second-hand military hardware from Tikrit and Kandahar and replace it with one that ensures every patrol car has a camera.”

    Whole article is here-http://www.steynonline.com/6524/cigars-but-not-close

  2. David Spence says:

    Note: I subscribe to the basic point, not every word, comment or aside!

    I lost a Malicious Conduct by Prisoner case last week involving spitting on jail personnel. There is a video system in the jail that caught the event but no tape because an electrical surge from a thunderstorm “fried” the system before the tape could be downloaded.
    Two lessons-1.”Reasonable Doubt” will probably be found if a videotape of the actual crime existed but can’t be produced by the State at trial. 2. More importantly-a videotape of the actual crime would have most likely resulted in a guilty plea or a quick guilty verdict.
    Do you think Rick Perry is glad for videotaped DWI arrests? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7y7oJ266qI

  3. Richard Peacock says:

    They don’t have dashcams even on NCHP cars because it’s bad for business. The cops are feeding the system at the courthouse, giving everyone from lawyers to judges to clerks to bailiffs ad infinitum jobs. Court costs are paying for all but the first. Get a ticket in Carteret County and one gets a letter from twenty lawyers who for a hundred fifty dollars can get you a backseat ticket, $235 cost of court plus a compairably miniscule $35 fine that goes to the school Most of these cops have no idea what the fourth amendment is much less Delaware v. Prouse, and that seems to be just fine with the judges. Just ask Judge Karen here. What a travesty.

    • Mark says:

      What are you talking about? I know for a fact that NCSHP cruisers have video cameras facing both forward and facing the front two seats of the trooper’s patrol. This may not be all NCSHP cruisers, but don’t make a blanket generalization when you can’t back it up with proof.

  4. James Soder says:

    In my case where Cleveland County Deputies caused injury to my knee, which required surgical repair, and injury to my back, which also required surgical repair, the cameras would have clarified that there was no reason to even arrest me while on my own property and having called 911 about a break in. The system has been a tragedy ever since. Attorney being offered a judgeship, refusal to allow the criminal case to come to appeal, let a lone the lower court not hearing my own testimony as to what occurred and the judge putting restraints on me telling me that “I could not even look in the deputies direction during court.” From what I have discovered I am at least the fourth person to be severely injured in that county by those particular deputies. One man almost died from repeated and close tasering. Another did die in the jail and was settled for under $100K. Definitively, put the cameras out there!
    The law also needs to be changed in this state so that when an attorney throws a case by saying he did read that paragraph of the law, referencing delivery of civil summons, and the entire civil case is thrown out; the attorney aught to suffer severe consequences and the citizen should be allowed to pursue his case. Unbelievable that an attorney can throw a case and not be sued in this state.
    Put cameras in the court rooms as well and on all levels tape recording are the minimum that should be used to hold judges, attorneys, bailiffs, and all justice system personnel accountable.

  5. Walter Rand says:

    Rather than “sour the relationship between law enforcement and the public” I think cameras would improve that relationship by minimizing the dishonesty so many law enforcement officers indulge in. The cameras would be intrusive, but the accountability for law enforcement outweighs that intrusiveness (I hope).

    • Eugene Muse says:

      Cameras would also minimize the dishonesty of private citizens in their encounters with law enforcement. It would protect us from claims such as dishonesty, that so many of us apparently indulge in. I think that you will find that the majority of officers welcome the use of cameras as they prove our cases easily.

  6. Sgt Jerry Schrecker (Ret) says:

    It has been to my experience that the reluctance to cameras in the cars and body cams comes from the police attorneys and city attorneys. Why? They simply do not enjoy the luxury of throwing the officer under the bus when the video shows the officer within policy and state law. The Fayetteville Police Department actually at one time tried to get AWAY from the cameras on the advice of a police attorney. Thankfully that fell through.

    The police attorneys do not like the extra work it causes them nor do they like having to tell a complainer that the officer was right and their filing a lawsuit won’t change a thing.

    The officers LOVE the cameras. They see them as their proof that they did nothing wrong and truly LOVE watching the looks that come over the whining citizen’s face when they realize that they (the citizen) were caught in a lie. Case in point:

    http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/-racial-slur-not-heard-video-released-fayetteville-police-/2012/05/25/6325748.htm

    Civil attorneys hate them too because they simply can’t fight the truth on the video and no longer can settlements to “go away” be manufactured at the expense of the officer’s credibility.

    And lastly, the officer can now SUE THE WHINING COMPLAINER because it’s no longer a “He said, She said” situation. The PROOF is in the video. Oh yes….we LOVE that!

    In the case cited above the officer did in fact sue the liar.

    • J.C. Towler says:

      The camera exonerates the officer the vast majority of the time but this is not widely known because departments handle most complaints internally and/or simply don’t see the upside of showing up a member of the public on a false/”misremembered” allegation. So those videos rarely make it into public circulation (exceptions of course, such as the one you posted). And they aren’t as “sexy” to cover as police misconduct.

      When the officer is in the wrong, or if there’s controversy about the officer’s decision (right or wrong) the videos are splashed across the news and the video is often edited to the point where it fails to tell the whole story.

  7. dj anderson says:

    If only the military had old dash cams to give away to police like they do armored wheeled vehicles. Obviously the few police are scared by the large crowds as seen by the show of power.

    Everything in life is not going to be on film. If the people don’t trust the police, then the people should be able to keep the police out of their neighborhoods.

    The man was shot four times in the right arm and twice in the head. Not hard to figure out which place he was shot first, and last.

    Did the big man scare the cop and try to take his gun? Did the big man wrongly think the cop was going to get him for the robbery instead of blocking traffic? Did the cop lose it and over react? Until we know these answers should we burn and loot? Don’t know if the cop did wrong, but we know those looting and doing violence are doing wrong.

    We’ve seen this slow motion information release in Durham and the riots while waiting. If the reports come out fast and then are altered, confidence is again lost. There’s no winning when it becomes “us against them” in any form. Protests are legal and put pressure on the system via media.

    This is the community they have in Ferguson and they are living with it. It’s alive in Durham. The black, homeboy state trooper has failed to bring peace, and for some reason, maybe race, President Obama has involved himself along with the usual Sharpton media types. Obama can’t win, for if he did nothing, that would be used against him, and if he does this, this will be used against him. (hometown Chicago has more murders, as does Detroit, but Obama doesn’t get in there)

    Put up a camera and someone will run in front of it, and someone will act out for attention. I’m willing to wait for the investigation before I go loot and burn and get a rope. Emotion rules over intellect at times like these where the action is at.

  8. J.C. Towler says:

    Love the cameras.

    Every case that I am familiar with where an irate member of the public has come to court or come to complain about an officer’s conduct has been resolved quickly and satisfactorily (and usually in the officer’s favor) when they camera or audio has been used. Time and again, cameras are the bane of bad officers and the saving grace of the good ones.

    Leaving them running throughout a shift is not an option. Officers deal with situations that should not be recorded.

    Unfortunately equipment failure can and does happen. These cameras are permanently mounted in the cars and the good ones are set up where the officer has no access to the recording so it cannot be tampered with or deleted. Cars get hot. Cars get cold. Police cars and equipment undergo stresses that your average Joe riding around with his GoPro does not inflict on his equipment. Body cameras get beat to pieces in struggles just like badges, holsters, pants, and everything else.

  9. Walter says:

    The call for cameras might be a good one, but this is a poor example as it happened in a Wal-Mart. I do not know how many cameras Wal-Mart has, but it is a lot. And there is video of this incident according to MSNBC:
    http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/family-man-killed-cops-walmart-demands-surveillance-video
    I will wait for the video, but it is a tragedy regardless of fault.

  10. Walter Rand says:

    Maybe if the policeman had been on camera & knew he was on camera he would not have shot an unarmed man (6 times).

  11. Jeff Welty says:

    Some departments that have tested wearable cameras have observed substantial reductions in both use of force and citizen complaints. As the various comments above suggest, it is possible that (1) citizens are behaving differently, knowing that they are being recorded, (2) officers are behaving differently, knowing that they are being recorded, or (3) both.

  12. Jeff Welty says:

    A helpful reader just pointed me to this article about wearable recording devices in San Diego: http://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/08/even-when-police-do-wear-cameras-you-cant-count-on-ever-seeing-the-footage/378690/. It notes that the resulting recordings may not be public records and may not be released in the immediate aftermath of a controversial use of force by an officer.

  13. Dennis Y. says:

    Dashcams are nice tools to have, activated automatically whenever the emergency equipment is turned on. However, let’s look at this logically. Dashcams are mounted at the DASH and do NOT show the peripherals around the car. A mechanism should be installed to allow the dashcam to traverse in order to record occurrences in a 360 degree radius.
    As a retired police officer with over 35 yr. experience as a training officer and SWAT my thoughts are these: First, the officer should have awaited backup, particularly with such a large person, and he was a LARGE 6ft. 4in, and every bit of at least 250+ lb. Second, if available, utilize non-lethal methods, i.e., taser, OC Spray, Asp, etc. to effect arrest of the subject, if necessary.
    But, let’s keep the main issue in mind when thinking about Ferguson, MO. The agitators are more than likely outsiders who come in a stir up trouble, similar to the insurgents in Afhganistan and Iraq. They are coming in to loot and destroy a community and when the smoke clears and calm is restored they’ll return home and the citizens of the Ferguson community will be left with nothing, just like what happened during the Watts riots back in the day. The citizens of Ferguson need to ban together and root out the outside influences who are doing more damage than good. They DO NOT need that in their community….nor do any of us.

    • Tobias says:

      I believe the Mike Brown shooting has accelerated the discussion on race and the need for camera’s even when many people are afraid to discuss the obvious differences when young men of color experience a totally different outcome when confronted by police.

      The advantage for police for not installing them as Ferguson police chief claimed the cost for installation was $3000 and he only intended to outfit two of the 18 cars shows hesitancy. This country rakes in a unprecedented amount of drug money but tells citizens they have no resources for public safety thus not being able to afford camera’s but young men are being killed and court cost for these trials that continue to acquit officers over and over like 75% of the time is taxing on tax payers, let alone families common sense. Its very disturbing and insulting that in 2014 we are hearing police chiefs say things to a community of minorities that show its basically a preference and has to be mandated by a judge in order for camera’s or body camera’s to be enforced. I recall recently when Eric Holder was affecting change with the maximum minimum and reversing crack cocaine sentences to equal the time people with powder cocaine to be equal police officers were worried more about Informants/Snitches( helping police cases) than they were about minorities civil rights. As citizens we expect a certain amount of privacy but once we venture outside we can’t expect to live in a bubble and be free from being recorded however inconvenient. I think this discussion has prompted many people to see race and different treatment in a whole new light and the Trayvon Martin case highlighted why camera’s are an important tool for anyone who decides to carry guns in our society to be transparent and i think we are moving in the right direction. Notwithstanding the neighborhood watch association stated they suggested volunteers not have guns and simply watch- what if Zimmerman only had a videotape recorder or camera and not a gun? That young black male would be alive today. camera’s are useful but we need to address perception of black males or the camera still will be of no use if someone creates their own narrative if they are the aggressor and are trained to incite

  14. jesse jones says:

    I filed a motion for videos tapes from the harnett county jail in regards to testing during dwi ARRESTS; the state has fought me every step of the way about being allowed to get the video tapes; I won a motion in which the judge dismissed my clients case because they would not turn over the video tapes; of coarse the state appealed to superior court and after i won my motion the sheriff through the advice of the state and their police attorney turned off the video’s to the jail so that dont record any more–when we have gotten video’s its simple–he was falling down or he was not; he passed the tests or he didnt pass the tests; the officer observed the 15 minutes observation period or he didnt; Why would they turn the tapes off–because they dont want the public or judge to see what really happened. here in harnett we house federal inmates I wonder how the feds would feel if they knew that Harnett county is breaking the terms of their agreement with them to house federal inmates ( all punishment of federal inmates must be recorded). The video tapes tell you who the cops are that make stuff up and who the honest cops are; why would you not want this-unless you would rather honor the cops who juice the facts; video recordings make resolving cases so much easier; How many criminal lawyers have had that case were the client swears he didnt sell any drugs yet you get the video and clear as hell he selling; it happens all the time–So why is our local law enforcement so against during over video tapes—because they are hiding something

  15. jesse jones says:

    turning over video tapes-what are they hiding—THE TRUTH

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