Police look to expand use of body cameras

Technology protects officers from unfounded complaints but also provides evidence of misconduct on the job.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comDecember 15, 2013 

  • ABOUT JOHN SOWELL

    John, the Statesman’s public safety reporter, grew up in Emmett and returned to the Treasure Valley last summer after spending 20 years as a county government and politics reporter at the News-Review in Roseburg, Ore.

When a Nampa police officer shot and killed a pit bull-mastiff cross named Junior outside a home last year, the officer was immediately criticized for acting hastily and killing the dog unnecessarily.

The Nampa Police Department later released a videotape with footage from two miniature cameras attached to officers’ shirts. The tape showed Junior and a second dog, a pit bull-Chesapeake mix, going through an open doorway and attacking the officer.

Dog owner Anthony O’Hare apologized to police after viewing the tape, which has been seen more than 1.4 million times on YouTube. In an interview at the time, he said he didn’t blame the officer for killing his dog. O’Hare could not be reached for this story.

“The video showed what really happened,” Nampa Police Sgt. Tim Randall said. “Without it, some people would have questioned whether we did the right thing.”

The incident is just one example of how the use of portable video and audio recorders has transformed the criminal justice system — holding accountable both law enforcement and the suspects they pursue.

In October, Nampa resident Lee Rice filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boise, alleging he was roughed up by several police officers and deputies after he refused to leave his car or give his driver’s license to an Idaho State Police trooper. The trooper pulled him over for failing to signal for five seconds while making a lane change on Interstate 84 in Boise.

Rice obtained a video shot from the trooper’s dashboard camera to bolster his claim that he hadn’t done anything wrong before he was pulled over in the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 2011. After watching the video, a Fourth District Court judge ruled the trooper lacked probable cause to pull Rice over and dismissed charges of resisting arrest and failure to purchase a driver’s license.

The video shows Rice being dragged from his car and forced to the ground. Officers who responded to a call for help from ISP Cpl. Janet Murakami can be seen pressing their knees against Rice’s back. One points a Taser at him.

Other than the cost for small departments to obtain equipment, it’s hard to find a downside to the use of police cameras, said Marc Ruffinengo, an assistant professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Boise State University.

“It cuts both ways,” he said. “It can be used to protect the officer against unwarranted allegations, but it can also be used to show when an officer acts inappropriately.”

MADD PROVIDED INITIAL PUSH

In the late 1960s, the Connecticut State Police mounted a bulky video camera on a tripod in the front passenger side of a patrol car. The recorder and cables to connect the two devices were placed in the back seat. The agency later concluded the setup was too cumbersome to be useful for routine use. Still, the experiment showed that video recording could play an important role in patrol operations.

The 1980 death of her 13-year-old daughter by an intoxicated driver led Californian Candy Lightner to form Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD recognized the value of evidence provided by in-car cameras to win convictions against those charged with driving while intoxicated. The nonprofit organization, along with the Aetna insurance company, began purchasing camera systems for state police agencies under a program called “Eye on DUI.”

The Idaho State Police received cameras through that program in the early 1990s.

Over the past decade, departments have increasingly outfitted their officers with cameras worn on their bodies. Two popular styles are a pager-sized camera that can be clipped to an officer’s shirt or a cigar-sized one easily attached to eyeglasses or a cap.

The body cameras capture what is happening in front of an officer, recording both video and audio. They’re more versatile than car units limited to recording what’s going on adjacent to the patrol car.

CAMERAS PROVIDE ACCURATE RECORD

Both patrol and corrections deputies with the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office began using the pager-size body cameras about eight years ago. Any encounter that could produce evidence in a criminal case is recorded. The digital files are later downloaded into the county’s computer server without the ability by deputies to delete or alter the recordings.

“We’ve been happy with them,” Chief Deputy Marv Dashiell said.

A portion of the initial 40 cameras bought by the agency were paid for through federal grants. The rest of the nearly 160 cameras bought since then have been purchased with money from the department’s budget.

The Nampa Police Department has used the body cameras for about four years and is also pleased with their performance.

Randall said the cameras, which cost about $800 each, are especially helpful in showing people who report an unpleasant encounter with police what happened.

“We get a lot of complaints. It’s the nature of our business,” Randall said. “However, a lot of times when a person thinks an officer has been rude or overly aggressive, that isn’t the case at all.”

Nampa received a grant to pay for the first nearly 80 cameras. An additional 50 cameras were paid for through the budget.

An encounter involving police can be a high-stress situation for people, Randall said. Afterward, it’s sometimes hard for them to remember all that took place.

“In the heat of the moment, people don’t realize the things they’re saying,” he said.

Nampa police allow those folks to come in and view the videos. In most instances, it helps calm them down as they get a different perspective on what happened, Randall said.

“It can also help us with an officer who needs to go down the road, to be terminated,” he said.

Both Nampa police and the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office use the tapes to review officers’ actions, ensuring they’re following department rules and guidelines.

‘EVERYONE ASSUMES THEY’RE COMING’

Over the summer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg deemed body cameras “unnecessary” after a federal judge ordered the city to adopt them for a pilot program. That’s after the judge concluded the New York Police Department intentionally discriminated against minorities.

At the same time, police departments in San Francisco, Spokane and Phoenix are embracing the technology and buying body cameras for their officers.

“Everyone assumes they’re coming and sooner rather than later,” said Pierce Murphy, the former Boise community ombudsman now in a similar position in Seattle.

Audio recordings proved useful to Murphy in his role as ombudsman, a job he held from 1999 until July, when he was hired by the city of Seattle.

Just before he left, Murphy issued a report criticizing a Boise police sergeant for his demeanor while interviewing a jail prisoner who accused another officer of striking him in the nose with a baton during his arrest. The suspect was accused of littering after throwing a citation on the ground and refusing to pick it up.

Murphy listened to the recording as part of a routine audit of completed Internal Affairs investigations. The ombudsman concluded that the sergeant made it clear through his statements and questions that he did not believe the prisoner’s allegation from the start.

The officer interrupted the prisoner several times and spoke over him, Murphy wrote in his July 5 report. He also denied that anyone had struck the man, even after the prisoner said he was hit before the sergeant arrived on the scene.

“The investigation into this complaint left no doubt that, from the moment he made contact with Witness No. 1 in the Ada County Jail, Officer No. 1 failed to treat Witness No. 1 in a civil and respectful manner. The audio recording Officer No. 1 made of this encounter clearly documents the antagonistic tone and words Officer No. 1 used, hardly allowing Witness No. 1 to explain the nature and specifics of his complaint,” Murphy wrote.

GREAT EVIDENCE, BUT WHAT OF PRIVACY?

Locally, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Boise, Meridian, Garden City and Caldwell currently use audio recorders attached to officers’ uniforms.

Those departments are reviewing body camera systems and may end up equipping their officers with them.

“They make for great evidence for jurors, judges, prosecutors and the defense,” said Sgt. Joey Hoadley of the Caldwell Police Department, which is testing camera systems from two manufacturers. “It’s almost like having an impartial observer at the scene. I think it’s the wave of the future.”

The Idaho State Police relies on dashboard cameras for its 154 patrol troopers and sergeants. They are adequate for the needs of the department, which is mostly involved with freeway and highway stops.

“They’re useful for us to protect our officers from complaints,” ISP spokeswoman Teresa Baker said.

The body cams do a good job of showing what’s directly in front of a police officer, but they don’t reveal what’s happening at the sides out of the camera’s view, Murphy said. Still, he said, he believes the cameras have value for both officers and the public.

Privacy issues are a concern. In Murphy’s new home of Washington state, the law differs from Idaho in regards to audio and video recordings. Such recordings of private conversations are legal there only if the person being recorded is aware of the taping. Idaho only requires one person’s consent to record an interaction, leaving it up to the person doing the recording to decide whether to announce it.

Neither state has a restriction for recording conversations in a public area, where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

There’s also the question of whether it’s proper for an officer to go into a person’s home and record without a warrant.

“The privacy issues are not to be taken lightly,” Murphy said.

The American Civil Liberties Union in October said it generally supports the use of police body cameras, but only if officers are not allowed to edit what has been recorded. The group said recordings inside a home should not embarrass anyone or make a victim reluctant to report a crime.

“How can we ensure that video of embarrassing or titillating incidents does not get circulated within a police force for laughs, or end up on the Internet?” wrote Jay Stanley, a senior ACLU policy analyst, in explaining the ACLU’s views.

VIDEO INCREASINGLY EXPECTED IN COURT

A yearlong pilot program for body cameras in Rialto, Calif., found that use-of-force incidents in the town of 100,000 residents dropped by half. Complaints about police actions dropped from 28 to 3 during the pilot program, which went through February.

Officers in some departments considering the use of body cameras fear the “big brother” implications that they’ll be used to try and catch them messing up.

Nampa and Canyon County officials say they didn’t see those kind of concerns with their officers.

Canyon County deputies have used voice recorders attached to their belts since at least 1983, Capt. Dana Maxfield said. When the agency made the switch to body cameras, it was an easy transition, he said.

With the advances in digital video recorders, Third District judges in Canyon County are increasingly expecting that video evidence will be introduced in criminal cases with a police encounter, Dashiell said.

“There’s that expectation,” Dashiell said. “And if the evidence is there, it should be used.”

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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