Between 2013 and 2019, 28 people in Kansas City were killed by Kansas City police officers and more than half of them were Black; three were unarmed. It’s a situation that for years has led activist groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City to demand equipping Kansas City police officers with cameras.
Finally, thanks to a donation from the DeBruce Foundation, Kansas City Police Department officers will be equipped with cameras. The department hopes it’s a move that will help them gain the community’s trust and increase their accountability. However, experts suggest neither the police nor the community should put too much belief in the power of cameras to mend the police and the community’s relationship.
Alex del Carmen, associate dean and professor at Tarleton State University School of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Strategic Studies, called body cameras a step in the right direction, but noted their success depends on how they are used. Although body cameras can increase law enforcement accountability, they are not single-handedly the panacea to end police brutality, said del Carmen.
Cameras Appear to Reduce Complaints
Research does show body cameras can help bring down complaints. In 2012, the Mesa Police Department in Arizona conducted a field study where they found police officers who wore body cameras had a 40% decrease in departmental complaints and a 75% decrease in use of force complaints compared to their 2011 records.
Another study conducted at Rialto Police Department in California found an 88% reduction in citizen complaints after introducing body cameras compared to the year before.
What isn’t certain, is whether the decrease in complaints is due to a real improvement in police conduct or an increase in satisfaction with the community that their interaction with the police is being recorded. Additionally, the fact that they are being recorded may also improve the citizen’s interaction with the police as well. In other words, the police aren’t the only ones being filmed.
Implementation Policies Make the Difference
Although these agencies experienced a significant reduction in community complaints, experts say police departments must implement body cameras correctly to achieve the accountability citizens are expecting.
In a report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) about recommendations for using body cameras, researchers found that of the 63 agencies in the study using body cameras, nearly one-third of the agencies did not have a written body camera policy. The agencies that did not have a written policy said they did not have enough guidance for what they should include in one.
Without a clear policy set in place with rules like when to turn a body camera on or off, what to film or how long to store footage, real police accountability can fly right out the door.
At the June 16 Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners meeting, KCPD Major Paul Luster said the department is working with stakeholders in the development of their body camera policies. That’s good news since PERF says including community feedback is key to securing more support and trust for the program. What’s yet to been seen, is how extensive KCPD’s outreach to the community for feedback will be, as well as how much they value, consider and even implement policies that address the community’s concerns.
Although the policy recommendations PERF lays out in its report are extensive, departments should know that simply copying those policies is not going to work.
“The policies themselves, their presence, is not going to derail and curtail practices on excessive use of force or racism. The policies are not good if they’re not being enforced,” del Carmen said. “So, I think that accountability is important, and having strong leadership that will make their officers accountable is even more important.”
Here are some issues experts believe the departments and citizens should consider when implementing policies for body cameras:
How Cameras Operate
At the Kansas City BOPC meeting June 16, Luster laid out criteria KCPD is looking for when shopping for body camera vendors. Some of the criteria they seek are the ability to film for 10 consecutive hours, have an automatic time stamp that cannot be altered, footage data that cannot be deleted, lost or corrupted and automatic triggers for recording so that officers do not forget to turn cameras on.
These criteria show KCPD is proactively looking for equipment that will hold officers accountable and prevent misuse of body cameras, building community trust. But, more policies will need to be put in place while considering the community’s feedback.
What good is it to record hours upon hours of video if no one ever looks at them? Sometimes officer misconduct caught on camera is missed because reviewing videos manually can be difficult with so much footage or because a department doesn’t have a policy that requires them to periodically review the film, del Carmen said.
PERF suggests random audits, conducted by someone other than the officer’s direct chain of command, to prevent important footage from falling through the cracks.
Footage Release Issues in Missouri
Kansas City citizens should know the footage caught on body cameras will not always be released. In 2016, just two years after the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson, the State of Missouri passed a law barring the release of police body camera and vehicle camera footage during ongoing investigations.
The measure was passed at the encouragement of law enforcement organizations who convinced the legislators that more law enforcement agencies would implement body cameras if they knew there would be some degree of privacy and judicial intervention. In addition to barring access during an investigation, the new law could keep video closed to the public if it was taken in “nonpublic locations,” such as homes, schools, and medical facilities.
In those cases, people who are in the video, their family members, or their lawyers could access the footage. Others would need a court’s permission. If the person in the video is deceased, a family member may also request the recording.
The law allows a judge to consider whether the release of the video to the public is “reasonably likely to bring harm or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”
Limited access to video footage isn’t something unique to Missouri. According to one contributor on Medium.com, an online social journalism publication, of the 105 police killings caught on body cameras in 2017, body camera footage was not released in 38% of the killings.
Lack of Conviction of Law Enforcement
Even with video footage, it’s difficult to convict an officer of wrongdoing. Just consider the original “I Can’t Breathe” video of Eric Garner being asphyxiated by New York City police officers. It was caught on film, but a grand jury refused to indict the officer who applied the hold.
Garner is just one of many killings of Black and White men by police. Remember Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Walter Scott and Ryan Stokes? None of the officers were convicted in these cases, despite camera footage evidence.
Until now, police officers have had both public opinion and the law on their side. In fact, the officer who contributed to Eric Garner’s death was never held accountable until five years after Garner’s death, when NYPD fired the officer.
Prosecutors, who depend heavily on police testimonies to make their case, are often reluctant to take action against officers with whom they must work closely. Then there’s the reluctance of investigators and juries to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision and the wide latitude the law gives police officers to use force.
In addition, case law dating back to 1985 invalidates the use of deadly force to prevent escapes but allows officers to use deadly force when they are in fear for their life or the life of others. A 1989 case, Graham v Connor, further clarified the standard for a justifiable shooting. The court ruled officers could use deadly force when an “objectively reasonable officer” would perceive a deadly risk, not simply when they felt afraid.”
Because camera footage evidence is not always going to lead to justice, Carmen said de-escalation training, use-of-force policies and other internal procedures at agencies remain important to really affect change.
“Just because (law enforcement) can use a particular technique of use of force it doesn’t mean that they should do that,” del Carmen said.
Congruent with standing-case law, KCPD’s use-of-force policy suggests not using deadly force unless there is an immediate threat. But just like in most police killings, this is where it can become subjective and as a result, more difficult to convict an officer.
KCPD also requires de-escalation training for all officers, but with 28 police killings in six years, there’s some proof de-escelation hasn’t always prevailed.
Earning Community Trust
While implementing body cameras in the most transparent and accountable way possible, experts say agencies must also actively seek community trust.
Chuck Wexler, PERF executive director wrote in the PERF project, “body-worn cameras can increase accountability, but police agencies also must find a way to preserve the informal and unique relationships between police officers and community members.”
Building police accountability and the community’s trust cannot be accomplished exclusively through body cameras. Body cameras can just be part of a police accountability program aimed at building community trust and improving police-community relations.
Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.