Bringing Police Body Cameras Into Focus

There is little dispute over the benefits of arming police with body cameras, but the system is far from perfect.

A body camera from Taser is seen during a press conference — AFP/Getty Images
Jul 16, 2015 at 3:21 PM ET

When Albuquerque police Officer Jared Frazier pulled over a 23-year-old woman he suspected of driving drunk it could have been the end of his career—or, at the very least, a dark, lingering stain on his personnel file.

Deanna Griego was clearly intoxicated. She slurred her way through basic questions and attempted to convince Frazier that she was a sober, model citizen.

“I’m going to school for being a (long pause) police officer,” she told Frazier. “[I have a] speech impairment. It’s embarrassing,” she said before failing to walk in a straight line during a standard field sobriety test.

Frazier wasn’t buying it. He took Griego to an Albuquerque Police Department booking station where a Breathalyzer determined that she had a blood-alcohol level of .13, nearly twice the legal limit to operate a vehicle. After the failed test, Griego got permission to use the bathroom, where Frazier overheard her talking. “How can I get this officer in trouble?” she said, apparently to someone on the other end of a cell phone call.

“You’re not allowed to do that,” Frazier said as he knocked on the bathroom door and explained people in police custody were not allowed to use their cell phones. “Go ahead and step out. You’re on the phone; you need to step out.”

Griego emerged from the bathroom armed with her cell phone and some very serious allegations against Frazier: “[You were] inappropriately touching me while I was waiting in the car. Please don’t touch me,” she said.

An accusation of sexual misconduct against a police officer could land him in hot water and put him out of a job, but Frazier wasn’t at all concerned. After he escorted Griego out of the bathroom and listened to her allegations, he gave her some unexpected news: “The whole thing’s on video ma’am; you can say whatever you like.”

A body camera is strapped to every officer on duty in the Albuquerque Police Department, and they’re required to activate it whenever they make contact with a civilian, APD Detective Chris Whigham tells Vocativ. Frazier’s entire interaction with Griego was captured on video. He immediately told other officers and medical personnel about the claims Griego made, and assured them that he had been recording the entire time.

“[Investigators] looked into the claims and watched the video,” Whigham said. “The video was crystal clear… it cleared him.”

There is little doubt that it’s better to equip officers with body cameras. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who will publicly cop to opposing them, especially when botched interactions with police have, in some cases, cost cities millions of dollars in lawsuits and settlement agreements—and others their lives. On the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, Vocativ investigated the evolution of body camera technology since the Staten Island man’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” were caught on a cell video and became a rally cry for national protests against police violence. Of more than a dozen law enforcement officers interviewed, not a single person said they think body cameras were a bad idea. But it’s not a perfect system. There are challenges law enforcement agencies face—and unintended consequences that most people fail to consider—when talking about strapping a camera to every police officer’s chest.

Tiny cameras, big business

After a wave of police violence made headlines in the last year, the Obama administration asked Congress for $75 million in federal funds to equip local law enforcement agencies across the country with body cameras, which are designed to be clipped to an officer’s uniform or embedded in their glasses so they can record interactions with citizens. While $75 million from the federal government is nice, it is a drop in a very large bucket that local law enforcement agencies are having a hard time filling.

To put the body cam price-tag into perspective, it would cost the NYPD more than $60 million to outfit the department’s approximately 36,000 uniformed officers with body cameras and data plans to store the videos if they used Taser International, the top body camera provider to police agencies and the favorite among those we spoke with.

Taser has several different data plans that range in price from $15 to $89 per month—and that’s on top of the cost of the camera, which is either $400 or $600 depending on which model the officer prefers, the clip-on body-cam or the pricier version that’s embedded in a pair of glasses. Most of the bigger law enforcement agencies opt for Taser’s $89 Cadillac plan, which provides software updates and other technology tools.

Officers using Taser-brand cameras have access to the company’s Evidence.com data storage center, which Taser officials describe as more than just data storage.

“When you compare [evidence.com] to anything else out there, you see that you’re getting an ecosystem that allows [police officers] to manage and store anything from photos to video to word docs—all the evidence for their cases in one place,” said Steve Tuttle, Taser’s vice president of strategic communications.

“Most of these agencies, when they see the price, there isn’t a sticker shock. They say, ‘I can’t afford not to have these.’”

For its part, Taser is cleaning up on the recent craze for body cams—the company reported earnings of $22.9 million in the first quarter of 2015 alone, and is expected to rake in even more cash as more law enforcement agencies start using the federal coin the Obama administration doled out for body cams

Rather than outfitting all of its officers with cameras, last month NYPD officials said they planned to buy an additional 5,000 cameras to expand a pilot program of 60 and reportedly began soliciting bids from companies that would be able to equip the city’s entire police force if need be. Taser officials would not comment on whether they were in the running for the contract, but said they’d be able to accommodate the entire department.

Privacy rights

Beyond the cost, there are also privacy concerns coming from people featured in body-cam videos and other issues that arise when you start putting private people in public video recordings.

“All of these videos are [subject to public records requests],” said the Albequerque PD’s Whigham. “Think about it— if there is a rape victim, or some other horrific crime that is captured on an officer’s body camera, anyone who knows how to submit a public records request could get access to the video.”

Had Officer Frazier actually touched Greigo inappropriately, the act would have been accessible to anyone who knows how to cobble together a FOIA request. Officers are required to inform a suspect or citizen that they’re being filmed. In most departments, an officer is required to make a reasonable attempt to alert a person who finds him or herself in front of an activated body camera. Failure to do so could result in lawsuits against the officer and the department.

There are also procedural problems in court, especially in cities like Albuquerque, where a department mandate requires officers to activate their cameras every time they interact with the public.

“Defense attorneys are pouncing on it,” Whigham said. “They use our own policies against the police. If a camera malfunctions, or the footage is lost, an attorney can say to a judge, ‘The police aren’t following their own policies,’ and it can help get their client off.”

Cynthia Payne is the lead defense attorney at the New Mexico Legal Group. She has practiced law in Albuquerque for more than 20 years. Like the police officers she often squares off with in court, she welcomes the idea of recorded interactions with police, but agrees that attorneys will take advantage of instances where body cam footage is missing or incomplete.

“It’s standard operating procedure at this point for a defense attorney to ask for all videos in the case,” Payne said. “When the video isn’t there, a defense attorney can move to have an officer’s testimony, or other evidence, dismissed…it depends on the judge.”

Payne says it’s common in DWI case—if there’s no footage of the suspect’s field sobriety test, an attorney could push to have that evidence tossed out of court. Depending on the judge, it might work.

Lessons from Albuquerque

The Albuquerque Police Department has emerged as the gold standard for body camera programs in the U.S.— but it wasn’t necessarily by their own doing.

The department in 2010 became the first large-scale law enforcement agency in the U.S. to start using body cameras. But that didn’t stop it from being one of the most deadly police departments in the entire country.

In April of 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report following a year-long investigation into the APD’s use-of-force policies and practices, and found that the agency engages in a “pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force… we have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies—including insufficient oversight, inadequate training, and ineffective policies—contribute to the use of unreasonable force.”

APD officers shot more than 40 people in a five-year period, two-thirds of which were fatal shootings, according to the ACLU. If you ask the people at the DOJ, they’ll say the majority of those shootings didn’t need to happen.

“If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The batteries ran out. The officer forgot to turn the camera on—there was always something.” — Cynthia Payne

“Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others,” the DOJ report found. “Instead, officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed. Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”

Some of the cases of excessive force were captured on officers’ body cams—and some achieved Internet infamy, like a video that shows APD officers shooting an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man who was camping on the side of the mountain.

Prior to the DOJ’s report, there were four shootings for every 100,000 people in Albuquerque, which is ten times higher than the rate in New York City, according to the ACLU of New Mexico.

“This is particularly alarming because violent crime and assaults against officers have been declining for years,” the ACLU said at the time.

Despite being one of the first cop shops to use body cameras, the cameras didn’t seem to do much good in curbing excessive use of force by officers. The problem, the ACLU said, was that body cameras were “used sporadically—police use cameras when it suits them, and they don’t when it doesn’t.”

Defense attorney Payne has had her share of bad experiences when it comes to video recordings.

“If it wasn’t one thing, it was another—there was a problem with the recording,” she said. “The batteries ran out. The officer forgot to turn the camera on—there was always something,”

In October of 2014, the DOJ and the APD reached a settlement in the use-of-force investigation and subsequent lawsuit over the department’s procedures. The agreement called for sweeping reforms in departmental policies, as well as additional training for officers. Following the settlement, the APD reinvested in their body camera program and purchased more reliable cameras and data storage programs.

By most accounts, the results have been positive.

“If you are doing your job correctly there’s no reason to care if you are wearing one or not.” —Anonymous State Trooper

“They used to come to court with every excuse in the book about why the [body cam] video wasn’t available,” Payne said. “Since the DOJ report, that’s changed quite a bit — we are seeing fewer instances of excuses for why the recording didn’t work, which has been good for everyone involved.”

The cameras worked in favor of a case involving 38-year-old James Boyd, the homeless man camping on the side of the mountain. Video footage shows Boyd had his back turned to the dozens of officers dispatched to boot him out of his illegal mountain campsite, where the officers opened fire. They then turned a police dog loose on the mentally ill man as he laid dying in the dirt. Two officers, Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez, were charged with murder earlier this year.

Prevention, not just prosecution

It’s easy to say in the case of Eric Garner, that body cameras wouldn’t have made much difference in terms of obtaining criminal charges against the officers involved—the entire encounter was captured on video by Garner’s friend, who later released the footage to the media. There is little dispute over what happened, yet the officers were never charged with a crime.

But would it have happened at all if the officers had been the ones recording the incident rather than a civilian?

“Like it or not, cops act differently when they think someone is watching,” said one of the officers we spoke with, a sergeant with an Arizona law enforcement agency that has used body cameras for the last two years. “You’re more polite—you curse less. You don’t let frustration get the best of you.”

According to a New York State Trooper, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak on behalf of the state police, body cams don’t let suspects get the best of officers.

“I have seen [body cams] save the officer’s butt more than once when a complaint comes in,” the trooper said. “If you are doing your job correctly there’s no reason to care if you are wearing one or not.”

There are several studies—some ongoing—that show how body cameras have helped reduce both citizen complaints and use of force incidents. In Rialto, Calif., complaints dropped by 88 percent after the police department started using body cameras. In Mesa, Arizona, complaints were down 48 percent after they implemented a similar body camera program.

“The biggest problem with cameras in the past has been sergeants just tossed [body cameras] to officers and basically say, ‘record whatever you want,” according to the Arizona officer, who also opted to remain anonymous. “What officer is going to turn on his camera if he’s doing dirty shit? There needs to be firm policies in place for these types of programs to work. If not, what’s the point?”

Last year, the Department of Justice released a report outlining the best way for law enforcement agencies to implement a body cam program. The report highlights the successes and failures of agencies that already have body-cam programs in place. The recommendation section of the report echoes the Arizona officer: specific policies need to be in place for camera usage, which was one of the major failures of the Albuquerque Police Department prior to the DOJ report.

“We made our share of mistakes in the past but have taken a lot of steps to fix them and figure out the best way to go forward with body cams,” Whigham said. “Body cameras are not going to fix every little problem. It’s not a perfect system, but for now it’s the best one we’ve got.”