In the moments after a recent shooting in Times Square, New York City police officer Alyssa Vogel heard an officer yell, “There’s a baby.” Body camera footage shows her take off running, finding a 4-year-old girl bleeding from a stray bullet. Vogel quickly applied a tourniquet and helped her to an ambulance.
Vogel’s exemplary actions were highlighted on the @NYPDnews Twitter account last week. Meanwhile, an appeals court recently ruled that the NYPD must turn over a less-redacted version of body camera footage from the 2018 fatal shooting of Susan Muller, who was mentally ill, in her home. The police department has been fighting against releasing the video for years.
Days-old video released in one case; years of delays in another. That difference, civil liberties advocates say, is a problem.
In the years since Michael Brown’s 2014 death spurred protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, politicians, advocacy groups and even cops have pushed for all officers in the 18,000 or so law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to wear small cameras to record their interactions with the public.
Those cameras are supposed to enable the public to see what really happened when someone is killed by police. But the reality has not lived up to the promise. Police departments often get to decide what the public sees and when, exploiting exceptions in the law, selectively releasing clips, and even arguing against release based on a dead person’s right to privacy. In some cases, videos have been released as public-relations tools.
“Technology is inherently neutral; it’s how you use it that decides whether it’s a net positive or negative,” said Scott Greenwood, a prominent constitutional rights attorney. For those who “thought body-worn cameras were to catch bad officers and prove bad conduct, I think they have been largely disappointed.”
Bodycams offer a window into policing
Within two years of Brown’s death, more than 7,200 law enforcement agencies had acquired body-worn cameras, according to a 2018 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis. The number is probably much higher today, experts said.
But nearly 38%of those agencies had no formal policy governing their use. And roughly 60% allowed an officer involved in an incident to access the recording without having to file a formal request — which could raise questions about whether an officer used the video to get his story straight or tampered with the recording.
More than 80% of police departments and sheriff’s offices that employed 500 or more full-time officers allowed them to informally access their recordings.
A 2020 study of 30 body-worn camera analyses concluded there is “substantial uncertainty” about whether they reduce officers’ use of force, but they can be effective in some situations and can reduce citizen complaints.
Body-worn cameras have captured a Los Angeles police officer fondling a dead woman’s breasts, a Baltimore police officer fabricating evidence in a drug case, and other terrible or criminal actions. For officers who are wrongfully accused, the cameras have helped dispel allegations based on minutes of footage, rather than months of investigations.
The cameras have transformed police training, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. His organization used bodycam videos to develop de-escalation tactics to deal with “suicide by cop” scenarios involving people experiencing a mental health crises. About 600 departments have viewed them, he said.
While bodycam video is not always helpful in police misconduct cases, they have contributed to a groundswell of activism over issues like qualified immunity, said Chad Marlow, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s because body cameras enable everyday Americans to see exactly what the law empowers police to do and what the legal system considers acceptable.
“Body-worn cameras have shown a side of policing the American people were not aware of,” Wexler said. “The reality is, the cameras are just capturing what has been going on for a long time.”
Cops have warmed to body cameras
In the years since body cameras were adopted, there has been an interesting reversal of viewpoints, said Jim Bueermann, retired chief of the Redlands, California, police department and former president of the National Police Foundation.
At first, “community advocates were vocally in support of cameras and police unions were opposed to them,” Bueermann said. “And over time as camera footage has exonerated so many officers, now it is just the opposite.”
Today, Bueermann said, community activists are less vocal because the cameras “have not produced this stunning kind of police reform that they had hoped for.”
Technology has changed, but laws governing whether a police officer’s use of force is excessive have not. The Fourth Amendment and a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case gives police officers the benefit of the doubt.
An officer who tells jurors he feared for his life or was forced to make a split-second decision in a fatal shooting is almost always acquitted by a jury — if charges are even brought.
These days, Bueermann said, “I think it’s clear to many police officers that when they hit the streets, it’s in their best interest to have a body camera attached to them.”
Police departments decide if and when to release video
That’s partly because law enforcement often write the rules on how these videos will be used.
As police unions and their advocacy groups began to realize body cameras were unavoidable, they put “their significant political muscle behind trying to restrict public access to the footage,” Marlow said.
Police departments tend to release a video when it shows an officer acted properly and delay release when it doesn’t, he said. “It turns police body cameras from a transparency and accountability tool into a propaganda tool,” he said.
Marinda van Dalen, a senior staff attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the firm that sued to get access to video in the Muller case, said her firm still has not received a more complete version of the video. The department claimed it was protecting Muller’s right to privacy, she said.
“The policies are described in this bold, audacious language. Then you find out that there are all sorts of exceptions and exemptions,” van Dalen said.
She said the New York Police Department will quickly produce videos that validate officers’ actions and “shamelessly redact” others to the point of “misrepresenting the circumstances.” She said she’s seen endless delays in releasing video when “it’s pretty clear it’s been done to protect the department and officers from oversight.”
New York police Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a department spokeswoman, told USA TODAY in an email that the department follows its policies on when to release videos. Asked if the department will release a more complete video of the Muller shooting, she responded, “There are no plans at this time to publicly release the unredacted footage.”
McRorie said the case, which occurred early in the department’s body-worn camera program, shows that “striking the balance in every case is a complicated matter and a process we are working through.”
When the Police Executive Research Forum crafted recommended guidelines for body-worn cameras in 2014, it said agencies should make videos available to the public.
Wexler said he still believes that if police aren’t prepared to release video to the public quickly, “you probably shouldn’t have this program” because unreasonable delays erode public confidence.
Police departments’ focus on how bodycams benefit officers is illustrated in Bureau of Justice Statistics data. Its 2018 analysis found the top four reasons police acquire cameras are to “improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce civilian complaints, and reduce agency liability.” Then came “improve officer/agency accountability.”
Some states make it hard for public to see videos
Some states, like New Hampshire and Ohio, have established strong public access to bodycam video. But others like North Carolina and South Carolina seem to be “putting up as many impediments as they possibly can to access” — so much so that they seem to miss the point of the technology, Marlow said.
The public should have “absolute access in police uses of force because that’s why we rolled out body cameras,” Marlow said. “Not so we could show police in their best moments and not so we could show a member of the public in their worst.”
North and South Carolina treat body camera footage as an evidence-gathering tool and it is not considered a public record, he said.
But those states allow someone who is recorded or a representative of a deceased person to request relevant portions of the video.
That’s what the family of Andrew Brown did. He was fatally shot, including once in the back of his head, last month in North Carolina. A judge allowed the family to see less than 20 minutes of video; more than two hours of video before and after Brown’s death were not provided.
His family said they want to see more. Their lawyers said the footage shows that sheriff’s deputies were “unequivocally unjustified” in fatally shooting the unarmed Black man as he tried to flee in his car. The district attorney has said Brown’s vehicle made contact with deputies.
Marlow said the laws limiting how much video is released and who gets to see it means the cameras aren’t being used to change officers’ behavior.
“The goal wasn’t just to hold police officers responsible for misconduct,” he said. “The idea is if we understand what went wrong today, maybe we can prevent it from happening tomorrow. So every member of the public has an interest in preventing themselves from being the next victim.”
Videos have played a part in policing reform
A bystander’s cell phone video brought George Floyd’s death last May to public attention, but the incident was also recorded by the bodycams of the four cops involved. Those videos were used as evidence throughout the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck. They belied the initial police department statement describing the incident.
Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter and is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
After Floyd’s death, Minnesota legislators banned chokeholds, demonstrating how video can spur reform. And six states — Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and New Mexico — joined South Carolina in mandating statewide adoption of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers who interact with the public, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There may not have been any body camera footage of Floyd’s death if not for the fatal Minneapolis police shooting of Justine Ruszczyk in 2017. Neither of the two officers present turned their cameras on.
The police chief resigned and the city updated its body camera policies, specifying when they must be activated and adding penalties if officers don’t do it.
But policing experts say it’s important to note that cameras don’t show everything. To an untrained eye, or without the technology to slow down a recording, it may be hard to realize exactly what an officer is up against.
After the fatal shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by Columbus, Ohio, police last month, it took closer examination of the video to determine that she appeared to be holding a knife and was aiming to stab another person, Bueermann said.
“It’s not a perfect technology. It’s not the fantasy we all hoped for,” Bueermann said. “Police still kill about 1,000 people a year, but cameras have absolutely improved policing.”
National correspondent Tami Abdollah covers inequities in the criminal justice system. Direct message her with story tips on Twitter @latams.