Law
10:41 am
Sat August 23, 2014

Even Police Body Cameras Can Lose Sight Of The Truth

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 12:12 pm

Ferguson, Mo., found a degree of civic calm this week after days and nights of angry clashes between protestors and the police.

Now the city is working to restore trust with residents after a white police officer fatally shot black teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9. City leaders and residents say one way to do that might be to equip police with personal video cameras.

"All the cops have to have body cameras and dashboard cameras," says resident Alonzo Bond, "so everybody can be accountable."

Earlier this week, the city of Ferguson said it was "exploring" the possibility of buying dashboard cameras and body cameras for its police department. And Ferguson is not alone. Around the country, body-worn cameras have become the go-to technology for troubled police departments.

Police chiefs are just as enthusiastic about the cameras as police reformers, sharing a belief that the cameras can resolve disputes by recording what really happens.

"Everybody's got their version of a story, but when it's on tape, it's on tape," says Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, president of the Police Executive Research Forum. "It is what it is."

But is it? Howard Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University who has written about police cameras, says lawyers are starting to discover what any college film student could have told them: Recorded images are not neutral.

"How the camera is held, the angle at which the camera is held, is the camera sort of panning, is the camera held steady — all of that affects the perception of what you see," Wasserman says.

He says in court, video — even if it's fragmentary or confusing — has the potential of becoming the star of the show.

"The problem that I think we get into is the assumption that the video shows all, so we can disregard all the other evidence that's not the video," Wasserman says.

The other big concern with police videos is control. In New Orleans, where all patrol officers started wearing the cameras this spring, the department has given officers mixed signals about when to press the record button, says Susan Hutson, the city's independent police monitor.

"We saw the department was struggling with that a little bit, trying to make sure that officers knew when they can turn it off and when they can't," Hutson says.

Even when an officer willfully refuses to record, it's not a fireable offense in New Orleans. Then there's the potential for technical glitches, which has long been an issue with the dashboard cameras. They frequently malfunction, and one of Hutson's staffers says it's "suspicious" how often the cameras seem to fail to record at crucial moments — a complaint heard in other cities.

Finally, there's the matter of the 30-second buffer. When an officer presses record, the camera saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment, but not the audio. The manufacturer designed the buffer to protect the privacy of police officers — and to appeal to resistant police unions — but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident. Wasserman thinks that's a mistake.

"I think if we're going to do this, we need to do it right," he says. "If anybody's privacy is going to be compromised, it ought to be the government officials who are wielding the power in all of these encounters."

He says that's another argument for more video recording by civilians to fill in the gaps of what "really happened" — now that that's increasingly decided by what's captured on camera.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The city of Ferguson, Missouri has found some calm this week. It comes after many days of clashes between protesters and police following the shooting of Michael Brown. In an attempt to try to rebuild trust, Ferguson officials said the city would explore the possibility of outfitting police with personal video cameras. NPR's Martin Kaste's been looking into the spread of these types of cameras in police departments across the country and has this report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When you ask people in Ferguson what piece of gear they want to see the police wearing, they almost always say this.

ALONZO BOND: All the cops need to have body cameras and dashboard cameras.

KASTE: Why is that?

BOND: So everybody can be accounted.

KASTE: Alonzo Bond is not alone in thinking this. Around the country, body-worn cameras have become the go-to technology for troubled police departments - places like New Orleans. This spring, the department there started requiring all of its patrol cops to where the cameras. Lieutenant Travis St. Pierre demoed the camera for NPR in May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS ST. PIERRE: When I activate this event button, which is on this controller right here - either on my chest or on my belt - it'll give me an audible tone letting me know that the camera is on.

KASTE: Police chiefs are just as enthusiastic about the cameras as police reformers. Both sides seem to share a belief that the cameras can resolve disputes by recording what really happened. Charles Ramsey's the police commissioner of Philadelphia and president of the Police Executive Research Forum.

POLICE COMMISSIONER CHARLES RAMSEY: Everybody's got their own version of a story, but when it's on tape, it's on tape. It is what it is.

KASTE: But is it? Howard Wasserman is a law professor at Florida International University, and he's written about this. He says lawyers are starting to discover what any college film student could've told them - that recorded images are not neutral.

HOWARD WASSERMAN: You know, how the camera is held - the angle at which the camera is held - you know, is the camera sort of panning? Is the camera held steady? All of that affects the perception of what you see.

KASTE: He says, in court, whatever video you do have - however fragmentary or confusing - has the potential of becoming the star of the show.

WASSERMAN: And the problem that I think we get into is the assumption that the video shows all. So we can disregard all the other evidence that's not the video.

KASTE: The other big concern with police videos is control.

SUSAN HUTSON: It's interesting.

KASTE: That's Susan Hutson. She's the independent police monitor in New Orleans. She says the department there has given its officers some mixed signals about when to press record.

HUTSON: We saw that the department was struggling with that a little bit - trying to make sure that officers knew when they can turn it off and when they can't.

KASTE: Even when an officer willfully refuses to record, it's not a fireable offense in New Orleans. And then there's the potential for technical glitches. That's long been an issue with the dash cameras. One of Hutson's staffers says it's suspicious how often those seem to malfunction. And that's a complaint you hear in some other cities, too. Finally, there's the matter of the 30 second buffer. Here's how New Orleans officer Travis St. Pierre describes the workings of the most popular model of body camera.

ST. PIERRE: The camera's always on. It's buffering the last 30 seconds of what this camera saw -will always be in a loop - just video - not audio.

KASTE: Did you catch that? It buffers video - meaning when the officer presses record, it saves the 30 seconds of images that led up to that moment. But it doesn't save the audio of those 30 seconds. The manufacturer did this to protect the privacy of police officers, but it also means the cameras may miss crucial noises or words that trigger an incident. Howard Wasserman thinks that's a mistake.

WASSERMAN: I think if we're going to do this, we need to do it right. And if anybody's privacy is going to be compromised, it would be - it ought to be the government officials who are wielding the power in all of these encounters.

KASTE: He says it's another argument for more video recording by civilians to fill in the gaps of what really happened now that that's increasingly decided by what's captured on camera. Martin Kaste, NPR News, St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.