Police Make No Promises To Discipline Officers Who Violate Body Camera Policy

Body cameras are pointless if we can't make sure cops are using them correctly.

Police departments in 17 of the 30 largest U.S. cities have begun to push forward with body cameras, issuing the devices to officers in a move that police reform advocates and law enforcement officials say can help bring more transparency and accountability to policing.

But according to an analysis of body camera policies across the country, departments aren't exactly sending a message that officers will be punished if they violate the rules that go along with the new devices.

The data was collected as part of Campaign Zero, a policy platform that grew out of the Black Lives Matter movement and offers solutions to ending police violence in the country. 

The graphic below from Campaign Zero shows that only Denver scores a passing grade on "Accountability," meaning its body camera policy, issued in September, is the only one that establishes clear disciplinary guidelines for officers who fail to adhere to recording requirements.

In most of the other 16 cities, body camera policies contain no language about disciplinary action for violations -- which could include issues like an officer failing to record an incident or turning off a camera at a key moment.

Other policies offer vague assurances that violations will be dealt with appropriately. In Los Angeles, for example, officials released a controversial set of guidelines earlier this year declaring that violations will be "considered serious misconduct subject to disciplinary action," though the scope of that action is not described further.

And while Denver's policy may contain some clarity about discipline, it remains to be seen if the penalties the department has established will be strong enough to deter bad behavior. It takes three violations by an officer over a 12-month period to trigger a formal disciplinary case, for example.

Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and analyst who reviewed body camera policies for Campaign Zero, told The Huffington Post that the upside of this trend is that most cities are only in the beginning stages of equipping their officers with body cameras. As HuffPost reported in August, most major cities have a long way to go to fully implement the programs. Many are working their way through pilot studies -- in which smaller groups of officers test out the cameras -- or are negotiating contracts with manufacturers and data storage companies before rolling out the equipment more widely.

That means there's time to address these issues and tweak the rules. But to Sinyangwe, that's not an excuse for the weak language of most body camera policies.

"There does need to be a clear matrix of consequences for a first violation, second violation, etc., or consequences for something like when an officer did not record a critical incident like a police shooting, or an incident that there was a civilian complaint against," he said. "That should be taken as evidence that misconduct may have occurred."

Sinyangwe said there's not going to be a one-size-fits-all disciplinary scheme for body camera violations, but suggested that policies developed with the input of communities will ultimately be the most effective at promoting accountability.

"Because we're at such an early stage, the best practice about what is the most effective combination or response in terms of discipline that corrects this sort of behavior or gets officers in compliance -- I think the research isn't in on that yet, so we have a long way to go to really refine that," he said. "But I do think that at the very least there needs to be a very clear accounting of who is not complying with body camera policy, there needs to be an immediate response to repeated failures to reply and those responses need to be particularly elevated in cases where there is a complaint against an officer during an interaction where mandated footage was not available or was not being recorded."

There are also plenty of problems beyond the lack of accountability apparent in these body camera policies. Civil rights groups have warned about police using body cameras to expand surveillance, severely restricting access to footage or releasing it only when it benefits law enforcement. Sinyangwe said communities have been raising those concerns as well, and his review of body camera policies suggests they're valid.

While adopting body cameras and crafting accompanying policy is a work in progress, the current disregard for guidelines on accountability serves as further proof that the devices alone will offer no guarantee of broader reform.

"Without transparency and accountability, so without the public being able to see the footage and without there being any sort of clear disciplinary consequences, it really does prevent those cameras from being useful at all in terms of addressing police violence or preventing police violence," Sinyangwe said. "Transparency and accountability at its base level is what these cameras were proposed to achieve."

For more details about how the biggest U.S. cities are handling the body camera rollout, check out the full data from Campaign Zero.

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