One by one, police dashboard cameras malfunctioned that chilly night in Chicago.
The dashcams – four of them – powered up yet failed to fully operate when an officer fired 16 rounds from his service pistol into Laquan McDonald, killing the 17-year-old high schooler.
Police cameras went dark in 2014 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a patrolman shot and killed a troubled 19-year-old woman. They stalled again in the nation’s capital in 2016 when an officer fatally shot an unarmed motorcyclist.
So when several body cameras and dashcams reportedly failed to roll last month in Memphis as a patrol officer shot and critically wounded Martavious Banks, 25, impassioned protestors and neutral observers alike asked troubling questions already echoing across the nation:
Are officers deliberately neglecting their cameras – even shutting them off – to undermine the transparency promised by expensive investments in body cameras and in-car video systems?
And are supervisors letting them get away with it?
“We are seeing this happen over and over,’’ says Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that studies the role of police technology in protecting civil rights.
Longtime police administrator Richard W. “Rick’’ Myers sees a pattern, too, though he’s circumspect about cries of cover-ups.
“What we’re seeing everywhere is officers sometimes forget to turn them on in the immediate stress of a high-profile incident,’’ said Myers, who worked in law enforcement for 40 years before becoming executive director in 2017 of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization that advocates for urban police departments. “Now, nothing is more stressful than an officer-involved shooting.’’
As the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation explores Banks’s shooting and the Memphis Police Department conducts a separate internal probe of camera failures that have shaken public confidence, supervisors overseeing Memphis’s nascent, $9.4 million bodycam program may take solace in knowing, if nothing else, they’re not alone.
Police agencies nationwide are struggling to perfect bodycam initiatives launched to shore up public trust following a series of high-profile shootings of unarmed African-American men.
It’s a phenomenon marked by mechanical failures, training challenges, overwhelmed staffs inexperienced in a new, emerging technology and, in some rare cases, old school codes of silence, according to interviews and a review of contracts, policy papers and other documents by the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.
“A lot of times it just takes more time to become standard,’’ said Bryce Peterson, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank that’s conducted intensive studies of the Milwaukee Police Department’s bodycam program. “And a lot of that depends on how good their supervising officers are at reinforcing that behavior, frankly.’’
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland stirred early worries about compliance following Banks’ Sept. 17 shooting, saying there’ve been “roughly 40 or so incidents’’ in which police failed to properly utilize bodycams or dashcams since MPD began recording street encounters in 2016.
MPD has since worked hard to rein in those fears. Police brass say they’ve brought 53 separate disciplinary actions for camera violations, framing that number as insignificantly small compared to the two million bodycam videos officers have captured.
Ultimately, authorities may lessen the learning curve faced by MPD and other police agencies through developing technology that would automatically activate bodycams under certain conditions such as when sirens switch on or a gun is drawn from a holster.
But in the meantime, Memphis officials must act decisively and swiftly if they hope to restore public trust, particularly if evidence proves officers deliberately deactivated cameras, Myers said.
“It’s critical on these things to identify when is it deliberate versus when it isn’t,’’ he said. “Because if it’s deliberate, if an officer deliberately violates policy because they’re trying to conceal misconduct or whatever, the agency’s got to deal with that. They just have to. That cuts right to the core of the public trust issue.’’
Tragic failures undermine expensive investments
Following troubling police shootings of unarmed black men, including the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the 2015 death of Darrius Stewart in Memphis, the city entered a $4.5 million deal with Taser International to equip officers with 2,000 so-called body-worn cameras or BWCs.
The deal with Taser, which has since rebranded itself as Axon, includes video storage, service and maintenance. It could reach $9.4 million if extended over five years. So far, MPD has deployed 1,650 bodycams.
In addition, the city has a contract with Insight Public Sector Inc. that could reach $15 million over five years to install video and automatic vehicle locator systems in patrol cars.
Memphis’ bodycam initiative mirrors a national movement to bring more transparency to policing. But, like Memphis, several cities that have deployed bodycams and dashboard cameras have encountered catastrophic breakdowns that have eroded public trust:
Though a dashboard camera captured footage of the October 2014 fatal shooting of McDonald by a Chicago police officer, who was convicted Friday, Oct. 5, of second-degree murder, audio failed on that camera and three others. Those failures, part of a widespread pattern of neglect in the Chicago Police Department, included missing microphones, disconnected charging cables and corrupted equipment, according to media reports.
City officials in Albuquerque agreed to pay a reported $5 million to the family of Mary Hawkes, 19, who was shot and killed by an officer in 2014. The officer, who was later fired, wore a body camera but wasn’t recording. His bodycam also failed to work during two earlier encounters with citizens involving alleged physical confrontations.
Motorcyclist Terrence Sterling, 31, was shot and killed in Washington, D.C., in 2016 by an officer who said a racing Sterling struck his squad car door. The officer didn’t activate his body camera until one to three minutes after the shooting.
Memphis got its own initiation into high-profile camera failure last month with the shooting of Banks during a traffic stop in South Memphis. Police say an otherwise routine encounter escalated when Banks reached for a gun and then fled on foot. According to his family, he was shot in the back.
Police Director Michael Rallings said the day after the shooting the officer who fired the shots didn’t have his body camera turned on. The other two officers involved in the stop “deactivated either their body-worn cameras or in-car video systems during the pursuit,’’ Rallings said.
Police brass said they’ve suspended three officers with pay pending the investigation’s outcome. Those officers have been identified as Jamarcus Jeames, Christopher Nowell and Michael R. Williams II. Jeames is the officer who fired the shots, police say. Williams is the son of Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association.
Since then, police have clarified there is at least some footage of the incident, though exactly what that footage shows remains unknown.
“Other officers on the scene did utilize their body-worn cameras,’’ spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said in an email to the Institute. “The specifics of what was captured are not available at this point due to this is an ongoing investigation.’’
Speaking to a City Council committee on Sept. 25, MPD Deputy Director Mike Ryall said the cameras either malfunctioned or “they were turned off by the officers.’’ He also suggested the case could be an “outlier,’’ saying cameras could have been damaged or knocked out of place in a physical altercation with Banks.
Cameras do at times slide off mounting pins on an officer’s chest, said ex-police administrator Myers.
“Cops roll around on the ground. They wrestle. They have people assaulting them,’’ he said. “They’re in and out, in and out, in and out of the car. And all those things can break wires.’’
Still, three separate bodycams and possibly dashcams malfunctioning too is unlikely, said William H. Sousa, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
“That is kind of an exceptional case,’’ said Sousa, who cautioned not to judge a case until all the facts are in. “But there are reasons these things happen.’’
If any cameras stalled or were shut off, intentionally or otherwise, some video may have survived.
“The Axon Body 2 camera does feature a pre-event buffer that captures up to two minutes before the record button is activated on the camera,’’ Axon spokeswoman Carley Partridge said in an email.
Intentional tampering of video evidence in the Axon system would be difficult, Upturn’s Yu said.
“If there was video uploaded then deleted there are audit logs on backend of system,’’ he said. “Even if the video disappears the audit log would still be there.’’
How bodycams should work
MPD’s bodycam policy requires meticulous care and attention by patrol officers. Prior to the start of each shift an officer must:
- Confirm the body camera is fully charged and has no signs of damage.
- Confirm there is no data retained from any previous shift.
- Conduct a test video to ensure the camera is recording properly.
The lightweight Axon Body 2 is affixed to the chest. Policy requires officers to “maintain a clear, level, and unobstructed forward-facing view.’’
Once out in the field, an officer must ensure “at all times” that his or her camera is ready to record police interactions. This includes keeping the camera on and in standby mode – not a difficult task for the Axon Body 2. According to its user manual, the camera has a 12-hour battery life.
Directives in MPD’s bodycam policy are clear: An officer should activate his or her camera “when responding to all calls for service prior to making the scene of a dispatched call’’ and record all law-enforcement encounters and activities, including “calls for service, self-initiated events … and citizen contacts.’’
The policy requires similar steps for dash-cam video – inspecting the unit prior to a shift; conducting a test video; turning the camera on and keeping it in standby mode ready to record at all times; activating the recording mechanism when responding to all calls for service.
Mishaps and ill intent
Though policy requires officers to continue recording “until the event has concluded in order to conserve the integrity of the recording,’’ it doesn’t always happen.
For example, Michael Williams II, one of the three officers suspended in the Banks shooting, had a similar recording failure last year.
According to reports in his personnel file, he received a written reprimand for shutting off his camera in the middle of an August 2017 arrest that turned physical. Reports show Williams aided in a traffic stop at Third Street and Person Avenue in South Memphis. At first the motorist was to receive a misdemeanor citation. But she allegedly grew resistant and began sitting in the street.
“That’s when I turned off my body-worn camera,’’ Williams said in answering the charges. As he was leaving, the situation unexpectedly grew tense.
“Before I left the scene the individual became irate and began walking out in the street and I felt she was a risk to herself and others and I detained the individual without turning my body worn camera back on,’’ said Williams, who grabbed the motorist by her wrists and assisted other officers in lifting her into a squad car.
Police incidents can suddenly shift in midstream, said Sousa, the criminal justice professor. Because of that, premature deactivations do happen and are understandable, he said.
“They feel that the particular incident is over, and so they shut it off per policy,’’ he said.
Like many police agencies, MPD allows exceptions to recording requirements if a situation is simply too dangerous. “…Under no circumstance shall an officer’s safety be compromised in an effort to record an event,’’ the policy states
“If the call involves a person with a gun, they’re not supposed to be focused with turning on the cameras before they’re … focused on drawing out their weapons or giving orders to the suspect,’’ the Urban Institute’s Peterson said.
Though discipline is important, ex-administrator Myers said the relative newness of bodycams requires training and encouragement to get officers to use them routinely.
“It probably isn’t in the psyche yet, the subconscious,’’ he said.
To help make bodycam use routine, departments should re-enforce camera protocols during critical incident response training that typically involves instruction in weapon use and verbal commands, he said.
Sousa said bodycam rules and regulations remain in flux as officers realize video’s real-life potential and limitations on the street.
“Body camera policies are constantly evolving. And part of the difficulty here is that there’s virtually no case law that’s associated with it. So departments are really pretty much on their own to determine what the policies will be,’’ he said.
Indeed, MPD’s bodycam policy has grown by three full pages since 2015, from eight to 11, amid a series of tweaks and revisions.
While the policy was strengthened in places, revisions arguably made one requirement more ambiguous when it comes to terminating video recording.
The 2015 version of the policy said officers shall “document the reason the BWC has been deactivated’’ by making “a recorded announcement of the BWC prior to deactivation.’’
The current version simply says, “Once an event has concluded an officer will mark the conclusion of the recording verbally after clearing the call…’’
Automating the future
Studies show bodycam compliance rates vary widely among police departments – from as low as 30 percent to as high as 80 to 90 percent.
Rates tend to improve over time, said the Urban Institute’s Peterson.
“Once they’ve got time to get used to it, once the training gets set in, once it becomes part of their standard operating procedure, you see those compliance rates generally tick up,’’ he said.
Ultimately, automation may take officer discretion out of the recording equation.
Myers said pilot projects are underway to provide bodycams with automatic activation triggers already available to dashcams – the video starts recording when the camera senses developments such as sirens coming on, a patrol car door opening or a gun drawn from a holster.
“These are mostly in the pilot stage. They’re not there yet,’’ Myers said.
Axon spokeswoman Partridge said in an email that Axon Signal technology can alert “the body camera to capture the pre-event recording when it detects certain events such as a car door opening, light bar activation, or a firearm being withdrawn.” If it was in use by officers at the scene of the Banks shooting there may be more video available.
Axon says in media materials that 38 police agencies affiliated with the 69-member Major Cities Chiefs Association use their cameras, contending the system decreases litigation and the number of false complaints against officers while enhancing public trust and improving behavior of suspects.
However, independent studies vary on the effectiveness of bodycams.
A 2017 study by a research unit in the D.C.’s mayor’s office, for example, found officers outfitted with bodycams used force about as much as co-workers who didn’t. Complaints against both groups were nearly even, the study found.
Regardless, pressures for just treatment by police likely will keep bodycams in the mix for the foreseeable future.
“Officers need to follow the policies that are written,’’ Strickland told a gathering of news agencies Sept. 21 following storms of protest surrounding Banks’s shooting. “I’m directing our entire City Hall staff and all of our resources to get the answers to the questions that we all have.’’
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.