Body Cams Demolish the Bad Cops Narrative
Three years ago, I was handed a body camera and told to wear it from this day forward. I was one of the few officers that would wear the camera during the early testing phase for a department-wide rollout of body cameras.
And I was furious.
I viewed the obnoxious camera, its flashing lights, and constant chirping noises as a symbol of a lack of trust. Not just in me, but in my entire profession. The body camera rested on my shirt like the mark of the beast, a red scarlet letter, a weighted ball chained to the ankle, a “666” tattooed between the eyes for all to see. The libertarian in me thought the warnings against government surveillance in George Orwell’s 1984 had come full circle.
Police reform advocates cheered, and officers grumbled. A wave of demands for body cameras swept the nation. Reformers believed the cameras would pull open the thin blue manhole cover that hid a river of police abuse and corruption.
And three years later, we couldn’t have all been more wrong.
I was wrong, completely wrong to be exact, about my body camera. I didn’t merely come to tolerate the camera, I absolutely love the camera and cannot imagine policing without it.
Accountability of Officers
The camera brings an enormous number of benefits, and I’ll start here with accountability. I don’t like seeing unprofessional behavior by those in uniform any more than you do. Police officers want cops who are unfit to serve removed from duty just as much as the public.
Without a doubt, body cameras hold officers accountable for wrongdoing and encourage professional behavior. Body cams have unquestionably led to improvements in the routine, day-to-day ways that officers go about their business. Officers are more courteous in their behavior, thorough in their investigations, and transparent in their actions.
The cameras improve the ability of police oversight organizations to accurately investigate accusations of misconduct. According to the 2017 annual report from Office of Police Complaints (OPC) for the D.C. Metropolitan Police, “The introduction of BWCs in FY16 further enhanced OPC’s efficiency, and has increased investigators’ ability to determine the merits of a case in a timely manner.”
Use of force incidents that, without video, would have sparked protests and claims that the police were covering for their own are now shown to be justified. Today, only the myth of the “blue wall of silence” remains. But don’t take my word for it.
In Austin, for example, the Office of the Police Monitor’s last published annual report (page 64, tables 35 and 36) showed that between 2011 and 2015 APD officers were 12 times more likely to be disciplined due to a complaint originating from other officers and supervisors internally (1,330 actions) than from a complaint originating from a member of the public (113 actions). Why might this be?
Accountability of Citizens
Just as body cams hold officers accountable, they keep the public honest as well. Body camera video knocks down false accusations against officers time and time again.
In the past few weeks alone, headline-grabbing stories about deplorable actions by officers blew up in the accusers’ faces after body cam video was released. Sherita Cole Dixon, Jerrod Moultrie, and Dawn Hilton-Williams were all shown to be the only deplorable people involved in the incidents. The body cam videos of each incident showed nothing but professionalism from the officers and lies from the accusers.
These three incidents form the tip of the iceberg of false reports circulating the Internet as if they were investigated, closed cases. Just how bad is the false accusation epidemic against police? According to the independent, civilian-operated San Francisco Department of Police Accountability (DPA) Third Quarter 2017 Report (the last one made available):
Of the 707 allegations investigated, 221 allegations resulted in “Proper Conduct” findings; 35 allegations resulted in “Sustained” findings; 126 allegations resulted in “Unfounded” findings; 105 allegations resulted in “No Finding / Withdrawn “dispositions; and 220 allegations resulted in “Not Sustained” findings.
Did you catch that? Out of 707 complaints investigated, the San Francisco DPA sustained only one out of twenty, slightly less than five percent. And what types of high crimes and misdemeanors were included in these sustained complaints?
Zero of the sustained accusations involved use of force. The violations were all minor and are listed starting on page 3 of the report. Out of the seventeen that the police chief disciplined, zero officers received suspensions. All either received mandatory training, an admonishment, or a written reprimand.
At the civilian-operated OPC in D.C., the 2017 annual report showed the office received 774 complaints. Out of the 774 total complaints, the DPA sustained only fourteen, just under 2%.
Complainants filed 151 discrimination-based complaints and 145 use of force complaints. Zero out of the DPA’s 296 discrimination or use of force allegations were sustained. Thirteen out of the fourteen sustained cases received discipline: two officers received a letter of reprimand, one received a letter of prejudice, six received education-based training, and the remaining four are still pending.
The Body Camera is Mightier than the Pen
Body-worn camera video has replaced spoken testimony, the written police report, and the older dashcam as the gold standard of accurate incident reporting. The written police report now seems to serve a similar purpose as a ringside boxing announcer. The announcer draws people’s attention to the ring, summarizes the stats of the fighters, and narrates the action as the real show gets underway.
This isn’t to say that written reports are useless or merely trivial in the presence of body cam footage. Reports add a great deal of information that video didn’t catch or audio didn’t pick up, like the smell of gasoline on an arson suspects’ clothing or events that happen out of camera off to the side or rear of an officer.
Reports are better than video at quickly conveying relevant information. It’s far more efficient for a detective, defense attorney, judge, or other party to read a one-paragraph synopsis of an incident than have to watch hours of video to arrive at the same conclusion.
The body camera has one major problem: perspective bias. Camera footage shows a narrowly focused, two-dimensional interpretation of a three-dimensional world. The difference between how our eyes see events and how a camera can interpret those same events is significant. This series of videos shows how grossly misleading the perspective bias of body cameras can be, especially during use of force events.
Court? What Court?
Will body cameras make court trials obsolete? Not quite. But in the three years I’ve worn a body camera on patrol, I haven’t had to go to a single trial for any case that I recorded on a body camera.
As a patrol officer, the camera is the most powerful tool I have. With it, I can build strong criminal cases. Officers in the field can clear innocent people from suspicion, gather evidence against suspects, and help victims find justice.
I can’t count how many times a defense attorney has questioned, doubted, and second-guessed my spoken testimony at trial in cases where I either had no video or only a dashcam video with grainy footage and choppy audio. An attorney even second-guessed photographs I took of a simple human bite mark on a victim’s skin. Cross-examinations over written and spoken testimony, even photographs, become a Theatre of the Absurd.
But testimony backed up with video? That draws the much-awaited phrase “no further questions, Your Honor” with lightning speed.
Body cameras eliminate much of the gray areas in criminal cases that defense attorneys exploit, prosecutors worry about, and juries acquit over. As Lauren Fryer points out in an NPR interview, “[I]t has actually been a boon to prosecutors, who are suddenly swimming in all of this evidence that they can take to court.”
It’s difficult to present a case to a jury with only a few, photographs, a report, and memory as evidence. It’s indescribably easier when an officer can show the jury video of an incident from start to finish. Body cam video shows the scenes, the emotions of the victims, the torn clothes and bloody evidence, and dubious stories of suspects.
A Major Improvement Over In-Car Cameras
Body-worn cameras are an unbelievable improvement over the in-car dashboard cameras, which were an important advancement in their own time.
In the past, my patrol car’s dash camera routinely failed to record events that happened away from my car. The dashcam missed the knife thrown in tall grass by a suspect just outside of its viewing area. The audio transmitter would cut to static a short distance away from the vehicle. Important accusations, statements, and confessions would all be missed. The dashcam’s grainy 480p resolution could not pick up an intoxicated driver’s eyes floating around during a sobriety test.
But the newer models of body cameras can capture everything in bright, 1080p video with clear audio. They go where the officers go and see a great deal of what the officer sees. They capture far more important, useful footage than the camera stuck back in the car.
For example, another officer on my shift stopped a car downtown in my city during a weekend night. He walked up to the car and the driver handed him his driver’s license. Suddenly, the driver sped off. What the driver may not have known was that the officer was wearing a body camera.
With only an in-car camera, the officer would have a difficult case to prove. He would have to convince a jury that the person on the driver’s license was actually the person he stopped. With the body cam footage of the driver, there was no doubt. The officer wrote up the incident, and a detective issued an arrest warrant for the driver.
Demolishing the Bad Cop Narrative
Not surprisingly, critics of police aren’t taking the success of body cameras lightly. Articles like “Body Cameras Can Threaten Civil Rights” and “The Failure of Police Body Cameras” dot the Internet.
The problem with these articles is that the underlying premises of their arguments have been shown to be wrong.
“The Benefits of Police Body Cams are a Myth” by Cyril and Yu is a good example. They argue that body cam rollouts promised that officers would behave better and that excessive force and complaints would decrease. They point out that a D.C. Metropolitan Police study showed that, “body-worn cameras had no statistically significant effects on any of the measured outcomes.” They ask, “If these benefits have not emerged, could the other claimed benefits of body-worn cameras — increased transparency, accountability and trust — also be false promises?”
As the Atlas Society points out, “if you seem to be confronting a contradiction, then at least one of your relevant beliefs is false.”
The first false belief is that Internet videos of officers fighting with suspects are all automatically examples of excessive force. As I pointed out above, in 2017 the D.C. OPC sustained zero out of 145 complaints about use of force. The latest quarterly report from the San Francisco DPA also sustained zero excessive force complaints. Those results paint a damning picture of the reliability of uninvestigated accusations of excessive force against police officers.
A second false belief is that complaints would decrease. Any cop could have predicted, despite the highly publicized rollout of body cams, that liars were still going to lie. Alfred pointed out to Bruce in The Dark Knight, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
The trooper who arrested Sherita Cole Dixon in the video at the top of this article was clearly wearing a body cam for her to see. The trooper’s car likely had a highly visible dashcam recording system as well. Yet she still lied about a sexual assault.
People like Shaun King still buy lies at face value, without investigation, and spread the stories as fact. Some people simply do not care about the truth. After the Cole incident, King still wrote, “Every single day I receive hundreds of requests to assist people who’ve been truly victimized in one way or another. I can count on one hand the times I’ve been lied to.”
Finally, the major false belief is that cops were the problem to begin with. The problem, as it has always been and continues to be, is with the suspects themselves. They choose to threaten, evade, resist, fight, and shoot at police rather than peacefully cooperate with the law enforcement process and be accountable for their actions.
Body cameras are putting to rest the myth that American policing is out of control.
No Slowing Down
Are there some cops that screw up? Absolutely. In a country of over 300+ million people, 300+ million firearms, and as many social problems, mistakes will happen. But not nearly as many as the numbers people predicted prior to the body cam rollout.
Body cameras are putting to rest the myth that American policing is out of control. Data from independent, civilian-run oversight agencies continues to prove that. Body cameras prove that officers are out doing the admirable work that they are expected to do in a professional manner. As body cam technology and procedures mature, police practices and procedures, transparency, and community trust will continue to improve.
And for that, we should be thankful.
Mike Endres graduated from the University of Texas, served in the Marine Corps, and went to work in finance. Tired of cubicle life and missing the camaraderie of the military, he followed a friend into law enforcement and currently works on patrol. He enjoys writing for his personal blog, Power and Purpose.