Last week, community members in San Jose, California spoke out at a forum on police body-cameras. Their number one concern: cameras being turned on or off “when police officers feel like it.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Last November, two police officers equipped with body-worn cameras were caught beating a man named Stanislav Petrov in the Mission District of San Francisco. The beating was so violent that one officer in his report wrote of being “so fatigued” from “delivering baton strikes” that “I felt as if I were going to vomit from overexerting myself.” Petrov’s attorney called the recording the “worst law enforcement beating on video that we’ve seen since Rodney King.”
But the two officers never turned on their body-worn cameras. Neither did the next nine officers who turned up at the scene, some of whom also engaged in beating Petrov. Instead, it was private security-camera footage that captured the alleyway beating, which showed the suspect stop and surrender before getting hit repeatedly in the head by officers, a different story from what the officers wrote in their reports.
The inaction by officers again highlights the question of whether these devices can truly work as a type of accountability mechanism if officers control the on-off switch.
There’s an equally important question about the limits of body-worn cameras, though: Even if they had been running, would they have provided an “accurate” picture of what happened to Petrov?
A recent article by Techdirt examined two other incidents where officers did switch body-cameras on, but still were able to control the narrative, by shouting things like “Stop resisting! Get off my gun!” as the camera rolls from an awkward angle, making it unclear what exactly is happening and giving an officer’s story the benefit of the doubt. A separate interactive survey and report by the New York Times showed similar issues, primarily the limitations of a body-camera’s viewpoint, and the way narratives can be influenced depending on what is heard as well as seen on a video.
The Times report shows something else as well: the power of non-law enforcement recordings, especially by civilians. Usually standing several feet away from a situation, civilian video – or surveillance cameras, such as in the Petrov beating – can bring a different and additional context to law enforcement encounters which body-worn cameras are unable to do. As just one recent example, the video of an arrest of a postal worker in Brooklyn by four plainclothes officers provides a narrative outside of the NYPD’s. As if on cue, officers immediately begin shouting “Stop resisting!” once they realize their actions are being watched, even though there is plainly no resistance from the man.
The postal-worker video continues to illustrate how critical community member recordings of law enforcement are, and how they can add not only context but often a vital perspective.
This is not new to CCR – in cases such as Bandele v. City of New York or our amicus brief in Glik v. Cunniffe, we have fought to defend the rights of people to record law enforcement. With the new body-camera pilot program ordered in our landmark stop-and-frisk case, Floyd v. City of New York, likely beginning later this year, we continue to believe that implementing strong policies and oversight mechanisms for these police body-worn cameras is essential if they are to be used as a tool for accountability.
But as body-camera programs expand, it is imperative that we are aware of their limits – even with the best oversight policies – including how they can often be turned into simply another vehicle for the police to control the narrative.