The case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who died a day after being shot twice by a Cleveland police officer, is not as simple as it seems, especially during a time when the public is becoming increasingly skeptical of law enforcement.
Cases of black men who have been killed by police officers have become increasingly prominent recently: A Beavercreek police officer shot and killed John Crawford III in a Walmart parking lot near Dayton, Eric Garner was strangled to death by a New York police officer and Walter Scott was shot in the back of the head by an officer in South Carolina.
In many police brutality cases, it’s the word of the police officer against that of the other person affected. This is the case in the Department of Justice’s report on Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
The report provides a detailed account of the shooting and the moments leading up to it, but this information comes from Wilson and other witnesses and cannot be verified by an independent source such as video footage.
According to the report, many of the witnesses were interviewed multiple times “to determine whether they were materially consistent with each other.” However, even if these accounts are true, there is no video or other independent evidence to prove it.
“Police officers can misstate facts in police reports to protect themselves. So in the event that they hurt someone, they almost always claim that they were actually being the target of an assault,” said Diop Kamau, who runs policeabuse.com, a website that investigates public officials. “Often, the only mitigating factor for the person who actually got beat up is when it’s on tape and you have an independent view of it.”
Kamau has personal experience with police using excessive force. Thirty years ago, he began investigating law enforcement after police beat his father, and his investigations eventually led him to a similar situation.
“I was beaten and thrown through a plate glass window in 1989 during an undercover investigation for the Long Beach police department, but I had it recorded,” Kamau said. “So when the officers wrote in their report that I was standing in a karate stance and that I tried to take an officer’s gun, I had proof that that didn’t happen.”
Kamau said because there was indisputable video footage of what actually happened in the altercation, the police officers involved were forced to resign and California changed its law about lying on a police report from a misdemeanor to a felony.
One proposed step toward police accountability is the use of body cameras. Rather than providing a view of the entire scene, as surveillance video cameras do, body cameras provide perspective from the law enforcement officer’s point of view.
“It’s something that can very much help with some of or many of the problems we’ve seen with police behavior out there, but only if people are trained correctly and the right policies are put in place,” said Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the ACLU of Ohio.
Although Kamau believes that the use of police surveillance will keep police officers from including false information in police reports, Daniels is concerned that even with body cameras, police may be able to leave information out of reports if they are allowed to look at their own footage.
“Let’s say an officer is accused of use of force and is filling out a report regarding that,” Daniels said. “There’s going to be a temptation among certain officers where they know they’ve used force, they know they might get in trouble, they might be tempted to fudge the report.”
Daniels suggests that storing the data from the body cameras in a centralized location would deter this behavior as well as offset the cost of the body cameras. Frequently, the companies that sell the body cameras will also offer offsite data storage. This way, individual police departments are not held responsible for developing and funding a way to store data.
Funding is one issue that has made some law enforcement agencies hesitant to require the use of body cameras. However, Daniels and other advocates believe the use of body cameras and the unbiased evidence they provide is worth the costs.
Chief Tony Farrar, a Police Foundation Executive Fellow, conducted a yearlong study to evaluate the effectiveness of body cameras in preventing use of force by police officers.
Farrar’s study discusses the psychological reasoning behind body cameras, specifically Deterrence Theory, which deals with how people react to being watched.
“When certainty of apprehension for wrongdoing is high, socially and morally unacceptable acts are dramatically less likely to occur,” Farrar wrote in his introduction.
The results of the study, which was conducted in California, were significant: shifts worked by officers without body cameras were twice as likely to result in incidents of use of force.
Not everyone is in agreement on the effectiveness of body cameras, but the media’s attention to police brutality cases have created an uproar across the country over where the line can be drawn between using self defense and attacking without reasonable provocation.
According to Daniels, the ACLU of Ohio believes that this emerging technology will not be completely effective unless policies are put in place to ensure accountability and privacy.
“(Body cameras) aren’t going away; they’re only going to grow in popularity, but if there aren’t some policies there, they are not going to fulfill all of the hopes that we have for them,” Daniels said.
The ACLU hopes that, if Ohio ever passes legislation requiring or regulating the use of video surveillance, police officers would not be able to decide when the cameras are turned on. However, Daniels said that there are certain scenarios in which the cameras should be turned off, such as when a victim or witness to a crime is reluctant to be recorded.
“Ideally, those requests and interactions should themselves be recorded so that there’s no confusion later as to whether the officer was asked to turn them on or turn them off,” Daniels said.
Some law enforcement agencies in Ohio have invested in various types of cameras and surveillance and have found that body cameras are not as effective as other technologies.
For instance, after looking into a variety of available technologies, the Ohio State Highway Patrol decided to use cameras mounted onto their dashboards instead of body cameras.
“For the work we do, the vehicle-mounted dash-cam provides a better platform,” said Lieutenant Craig Cvetan, Public Affairs Commander for OSHP, in an email. “The dash-cam allows for a wider view of the area, which for us works better when documenting things like field sobriety tests and the actions of those involved in the contact.”
While the effectiveness of body cameras and other methods of police surveillance is still being debated, Daniels says that police officers’ access to the recordings taken by the cameras is important.
“Some people just view this as a measure to deal with police accountability, but there are also privacy aspects that go into this, both for regular, everyday citizens and the police themselves,” Daniels said. “You have issues of government transparency and accountability, of public records, a whole host of things that go into body cameras.”
Overall, Americans have a fairly positive perception of the police. In a June 2014 Gallup poll that asked people to rate their confidence in a series of public institutions, 53 percent of those surveyed said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, the third-highest rating of the institutions involved in the poll (only the military and small businesses had higher ratings).
Some who are skeptical of widely implementing body cameras believe the reduced number of police complaints that occur while body cameras are used is due partly to a change in public perception and not entirely because police are less likely to use force while using body cameras.
“The behavior dynamics that explain these complaints and use of force trends are by no means clear,” said a study published by the Office of Justice Programs’ Diagnostic Center. “The decline in complaints and use of force may be tied to improved citizen behavior, improved police officer behavior or a combination of the two.”
Other visual alternatives to government-funded body cameras are being developed and tested.
Kamau and policeabuse.com have developed an app that allows people who are in potentially problematic situations with police to record six minutes of audio and video while the screen on their phone remains black to avoid suspicion. The footage posts to the newly launched policeabuse.tv, displays GPS locations of people using the app and sends emergency notifications to the family of whoever is using the app.
Rather than a traditionally filed complaint, the footage is sent to the police department involved.
“If you send a piece of paper, it’s not the same as someone who’s actually got injuries they can show you or the emotion that they’re imparting when they’re complaining about what happened to them,” Kamau said. “I think it’s more valuable than just using paper to tell someone’s story, so that’s our answer to the problem.”