In a warning to law-enforcement agencies rushing to equip officers with body cameras after killings by police nationwide, a new report says the devices used by Denver officers during a trial period didn’t record most of the use-of-force incidents that occurred.
Denver’s independent police monitor, Nicholas Mitchell, also said police used force more often and citizens’ complaints against officers rose during the cameras’ six-month trial period in the city’s busy downtown district. Police officials repeatedly said they expected the cameras would drive down those numbers.
Experts say the early findings released Tuesday are a reminder that the effectiveness of the increasingly popular technology, billed as a tool to improve police accountability, still depends on the officers using it.
Denver officers’ body cameras recorded just 21 of 80 documented uses of force in the downtown district during the trial, which ran from June to December, Mitchell found. Thirty-five of the encounters weren’t recorded because they involved off-duty officers, who were not required to wear the cameras while moonlighting as security guards.
Police officers wearing the cameras on their lapels or eyeglasses were involved in 45 of the cases. Yet less than half of those were recorded, either because cameras weren’t activated or they weren’t used in a way that provided worthwhile recordings.
Officers were expected to activate their cameras during a broad range of encounters, including traffic stops and responses to 911 calls. In many cases, officers said situations deteriorated too quickly for them to safely activate their cameras. But Mitchell found that officers often failed to follow policies requiring them to turn on the cameras before initiating an encounter.
Other times, the cameras shifted and were obstructed by officers’ clothes, the batteries died or they shut off in the middle of a scuffle.
Mitchell’s report highlights the shortcomings of body cameras at a time when hundreds of departments grapple with policies for their use. Officers in one out of every six police departments around the country patrol with the tiny cameras, and President Barack Obama recommended spending $74 million to outfit another 50,000 officers with them.
“It’s an issue that departments have to deal with, and they have to deal with it through policy and the culture of the department,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the nonprofit Police Foundation. “If the culture of the department is such that the line people do not see the value of this technology to help build trust and confidence in the police, it will be a struggle.”
Cmdr. Magen Dodge, who oversees Denver’s body-camera program, said Mitchell’s numbers were skewed because he looked beyond the scope of the pilot program. She said officers involved in the pilot used force 53 times, and there was at least some footage associated with 46 of those cases.
Dodge said the city is waiting for the results of an outside researcher’s study on the pilot program.
Officials stand by their plan to expand the program to 800 of the department’s roughly 1,400 officers at a cost of more than $1.5 million. Police leaders don’t believe there’s a widespread effort by officers to hide their actions, Cmdr. Matt Murray said.
“Part of it is a learning curve,” he said.
Mitchell found Denver’s early results were different than those in Rialto, California, where cameras were credited for an 89 percent drop in complaints against officers. That city’s success could be due in part to policies requiring officers to tell citizens they are being recorded, Mitchell said.
Mitchell said cameras could be effective with tighter policies and clear notice to officers about the discipline they could face for not using them.
“If you don’t have good policies and good training and give clear notice to officers of the repercussions of not using the cameras, you’re going to have officers that cherry pick, and you’re not going to increase transparency, much less accountability,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. “You’re going to really erode the public trust, which is really the intent of all of this.”