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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Zehnder

Body Worn Cameras Are Not A Failure! Part 4 Premise: Police have frequently fail to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse and have kept footage from "investigative" agencies

This is the fourth in a series of short articles presenting comments and counterpoints to an article in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 2023, titled “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” by Eric Umansky. You can read Part 1 here and follow the links in each article to the subsequent articles.

 

Mr. Umansky states in the article: “They (the police) have frequently failed to discipline or fire officers when body cameras document abuse and have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating misconduct”. The “they” he infers is police departments nationwide. He also never defines what “abuse” means. Again, whether intentional or not, Mr. Umansky leaves the impression that police departments across the country frequently fail to discipline or fire officers for all types of “abuse” which is not only misleading but incorrect. Since the article deals exclusively with officer-involved shootings, mostly at NYPD, one can only draw the conclusion that he is referring to discipline and firing for those types of incidents and trying to generalize that across all classes of misconduct. He never supports his generalized inference with any facts if he did mean all classes of abuse and misconduct.

 

The Police Executive Research Forum published “Body-Worn Cameras a Decade Later: What we Know”, also in December of 2023. I encourage readers interested in understanding a more balanced perspective on body cameras to read this report, linked here. What follows is an extract from that report regarding civilian complaints and misconduct investigations:

 

“Many rigorous studies have examined the impact of BWCs on citizen complaints against law en­forcement officers. They have consistently found that officers who wear BWCs have significant­ly fewer complaints filed against them than officers who do not wear BWCs. The results are clear enough that one study concluded, “If an agency wants to reduce complaints against officers, it should consider a BWC program.”

“A key unanswered question, however, is whether complaints went down because officers behaved better in interacting with citizens or because citizens filed fewer unfounded complaints since they knew the interaction was recorded. Understanding this point would help clarify the role that BWCs can play in improving the standing of police agencies in the eyes of the public.”

 

“Fewer studies have examined the effects of body cameras on investigations of officer misconduct. However, multiple agencies with BWCs have reported that some complaints that might otherwise have escalated into civil lawsuits were withdrawn after the complainant learned that BWC footage of the incident existed. And a 2019 study of the Chicago Police Department’s staggered implementation of body cameras found that “BWCs led to a significant decrease in the dismissal of [administrative] investigations due to insufficient evidence . . . as well as a significant increase in disciplinary actions against police officers.” The study also discovered that disparities across racial groups in the number of complaints that are dismissed or not sustained “fade away with the implementation of BWCs.” These are compelling metrics other departments would be wise to track and publicly report.”

 

I think the PERF document clearly refutes the fallacy of Mr. Umansky’s premise that this is a national problem. Police misconduct captured by body cameras does result in disciplinary action. However, not all police misconduct rises to the level of termination. Mr. Umansky would have the reader believe that police departments across the country frequently fail to disciple officers when confronted with clear video proof of the misconduct. This is simply not true and is an unsupported accusation against the law enforcement profession.

The second half of the premise is that police departments “have kept footage from the agencies charged with investigating misconduct”. Again, Mr. Umansky doesn’t define “agencies” in his statement, nor does he define what he means by “investigating”. It is clear in the article that “agencies” simply means civilian oversight organizations rather than the external agencies that may investigate an officer or department for criminal misconduct. He doesn’t bother to inform the citizen reader that the determination of an incident being criminal is up to the local prosecutor’s office and not the police department. Video of an officer involved in a criminal act is evidentiary in nature. Releasing such video prior to investigation and due process is counter to clearly established judicial processes. This doesn’t mean, however, that the department and the prosecutor’s office is precluded from doing so after careful deliberation based on the facts of the case and extenuating circumstances. This type of release is different than that of an incident which doesn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct. In those circumstances, I agree with Mr. Umansky, that departments should release video to the family, community, media, and any oversight organization in a timely manner. What is considered “timely” is dependent on a number of factors such as policy, state law, and prior agreements with an oversight organization. Many agencies do a good job of this as I demonstrated in Part 2 of this series.


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