A Call for Law Enforcement Reform
With the 2016 presidential election creating more and more buzz each day, many of our readers have undoubtedly heard discussion about law enforcement reform. This is a tangential response to movements nationwide, both on social media and in the community, calling for more transparency and accountability when it comes to police officer behavior and actions. Not only are members of the community concerned about the actions of police officers, but police officers and their respective departments are fearful for their own safety, as a result of a few “crooked cops” creating a bad reputation for law enforcement. It is because of the increasing negative publicity towards officers that many members of law enforcement themselves are calling for a solution to this huge issue.
Police departments nationwide are acting on these thoughts and ideas by implementing Body Worn Cameras or “Axon Body Cameras” for their officers. Mesa, Phoenix, Gilbert and ASU Police Departments have been testing the private company, TASER’s, body cameras since 2013.
Bernie Sanders, an advocate for law enforcement reform, told viewers at a town hall meeting earlier this year, that Axon Body Cameras were a key way to decrease the amount of police abuses each year. This is true in part. In a study spanning from October 2012 to September 2013 in Mesa, Arizona, Officers were required to have their Body Worn Cameras on for a six-month period at all times. During that time, there was a 40% decline in “departmental complaints” and a 75% decline in use-of-force complaints when compared to the previous 12 months. TASER themselves reported that the San Diego Police Department’s use of the body cameras helped reduce the number of complaints by 41% as well, and there was a 41 % decline in “personal body” force by officers. The use of pepper spray was also reduced by 31%. The problem with these studies is that the officers who were analyzed were volunteers and were required to have the body camera on at all times. These two conditions don’t accurately portray reality in some scenarios.
Do Body Cameras Really Help Criminal Defense?
From a criminal defense standpoint, the axon body cameras have advantages and disadvantages. In situations where the entire contact with law enforcement is captured in video, the interested parties to a criminal charge have little to dispute in regard to what transpired. However, where the video camera can be manipulated by the operators, the law enforcement contact can be skewed. While law enforcement has good reason to want to block out privacy information for victims, for instance, it can compromise an investigation and/or alter the way the investigation was handled.
In an article titled, “Watching the Watchmen,” which was written by Matthew Feeney in October, 2015, Mr. Feeney noted a more important statistic, “Officers who volunteered to wear the body cameras were 60.5 % more likely to activate the body cameras than their assigned colleagues.” See—there’s an interesting “feature” on the Axon Body Cameras that is listed in TASER’s website listed as one of the many “helpful” technological advantages to their design, called a “30-Second-Delay.” This features allows the Officer to turn the camera on and (here’s the tricky part) turn the camera off, whenever they deem necessary. The 30 second delay also silences all audio until 30 seconds after the officer has started filming.
The Problem with Body Cameras: An Example
A Defendant, we’ll call her Jackie for the purposes of this article, gets pulled over by an officer for making an improper right turn. This officer turns on his axon body camera when he activates his traffic lights. He approaches Jackie’s driver’s side window. Jackie is polite and cooperative when speaking with officers and there is no odor of alcohol coming from her vehicle. Jackie has no dexterity issues when handing over her license, registration or insurance. Jackie says she is coming from the gym.
At this point, the officers have no reasonable suspicion that Jackie has been drinking that night. When the officer takes Jackie’s information back to his patrol vehicle to run her information, he is met with a fellow officer assisting in the traffic stop. At this point, the Officer turns off the body camera. When the body camera is turned back on, Jackie is being tested for DUI impairment by performing field sobriety tests. Of course, the audio is silenced, so when the defense is reviewing the video, whatever the officer is telling Jackie cannot be heard for those crucial, first 30 seconds. It can only be assumed that something was said between the officers that warranted placing Jackie under arrest for DUI, and something was being said to Jackie giving her reason enough to perform field sobriety tests.
The reason this is scary for both officers and citizens is that the officers have the ability to turn the camera off. It’s deceiving for the officers to be able to manipulate what gets seen and what doesn’t and quite frankly it defeats the purpose of the cameras all together. It’s bad for the State when trying to charge defendants because the lack of consistent video puts flaws in the case.
TASER themselves have quietly been trying to fix the problem. In an article written by Tishin Donkersley titled, “More Body Cameras Coming to Arizona Police Departments,” she noted that, “In Summer 2015, we reported that TASER was beta testing their next generation of Axon Flex. Today, the device requires the officer to physically turn on the camera to begin recording. The next generation will have wireless activation and automatically turn on when some part of the car/motorcycle, such as the siren or light bar, is activated.” While TASER is clearly trying to confront the flaws in Axon Body Cameras, there is still the critical problem that the officers who have been ruining the reputation of officers nationwide, the truly corrupt few officers still have the ability to manipulate the videos and potentially be free from reprimand.
Does Technology Help the “Human Problem”?
Mr. Feeney in the same article made an important point about the true solution to all this unrest. He says, “By themselves, body cameras are not a police misconduct panacea. Police misconduct can only be adequately addressed by implementing significant reforms to police practices and training.” While Axon body camera technology is improving, perhaps the $400 per body camera, $19.3 million in federal grant money, and money spent for three weeks of Axon Body Camera training, could be better spent on educating officers on how to deal with situations and suspects in a better way.
Please let us know what you think in the comment section below. Like us on Facebook to keep updated with more articles such as this one. If you or someone you know is in need of a criminal defense attorney, Cindy Castillo is available 24/7 at 480-206-5204.