Caught on Camera

Critics question effectiveness in preventing police misconduct

Eugene Police Department has implemented a mandatory, department-wide $750,000 body camera program for all on-duty officers, but critics wonder if the new program will prevent police misconduct.

The 162 camera systems, purchased from Axon (formerly TASER), feature front-facing cameras that will be worn throughout each shift. The cameras are to be turned on for the duration of each police interaction with someone suspected to have committed a crime, all stops for violations of Oregon Vehicle Code, and investigative encounters with suspects, witnesses, complainants and victims. 

Police officers will also record consensual encounters where the officer “will attempt to
develop a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity about the subject encountered,” and when a person is in custody, being detained or transported in a patrol vehicle.

Officers are encouraged to record whenever they believe an event should be audibly or visually documented, and whenever a civilian alleges bias. The officer is required to inform those they interact with that they are being recorded. Officers can turn their own cameras on and off, but are then required to explain why an interaction wasn’t recorded to their supervisor.

Eugene Police Auditor Mark Gissiner says the body worn cameras are a useful tool for his office when investigating allegations of police misconduct. His office has already dismissed several complaints based on the available video. “I have full access to anything I want,” he adds.

Gissiner says the biggest issue with the new policy may be implementation and training. “It needs to become routine, like tying your shoes in the morning.” Gissiner says the cams will lead to “more transparency, certainly more accountability through my office, more understanding for the public of what the officers deal with.” 

He adds that things will likely be “easier on a prosecution standpoint, probably easier on a complaint mitigation standpoint, probably easier on an officer safety standpoint, and honestly a significant training tool for officers.” 

Gissiner points to a Rialto, California, police department study that showed a 59 percent drop in use of force and a 87 percent drop in complaints against police when officers wore body cameras.

Attorney Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) says these body cams might not be such a boon for the rights of civilians. “The officers control the cameras,” Regan says. “They are able to turn them on an off, they are able to control their upload, they are pointing away from the officer and toward others.” 

The Lane County chapter of the NAACP supports the police body cameras and signed the application for federal funding of the new policy, which came in the form of a $249,000 grant matched by the Eugene City Council. 

Chapter president Eric Richardson writes in an email: “We are happy to see this roll out. However, we will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the program in relationship to giving citizens a sense of transparency and trust.” He adds, “Ultimately the program depends on honest, well-trained officers who understand they will benefit from the increased trust in their ability to perform their duties in a professional and transparent way.”

Gissiner says that officers don’t record at all times because of the “astronomical” cost of storing data. “I suppose you could put a measure on the ballot to see if voters want to pay millions to store all this stuff,” he says.

Regan of the CLDC adds that the body worn cameras “may assist the police in prosecuting others and protecting themselves in police misconduct cases.”

Though the cameras may capture police misconduct, Regan says the police currently record audio anyway. But when she asks for audio evidence when handling police misconduct cases, “There have been a number of instances where digital evidence has been lost, destroyed, rendered inoperable, especially in my experience when we request in car video or video of the jail. Often we are told for one reason or another that the evidence no longer exists.” 

Regan emphasizes the importance of citizens taping police-civilian interactions whenever possible, because non-police video can make for some of the most compelling evidence when prosecuting police officers. “There is a public right to record cops, but you cannot abuse that right by being so in the face of a cop that it interferes with his ability to do his work,” Regan says. 

Citizens are legally required to follow lawful orders to step back while an officer is doing their duty.

 Regan says police misconduct cases are often an uphill battle. “Especially since a lot of the victims in these cases are people of color, I think a lot of racial bias comes into play in the courtroom,” she says. 

In high profile police shooting cases like that of Philando Castile, the aftermath of whose shooting in Minnesota was streamed on Facebook Live, Regan says the fact that there wasn’t a conviction “doesn’t negate in any way the fact that a person of color lost their life to an officer who was sworn to protect and serve.”

Regan adds, “I think we would be ill-served by relying on the state to police itself. That’s never been a good solution to police misconduct.” 

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