Editor’s note: ‘Dispatches from the Academy’ is an ongoing series relating Review reporter Luciano Marano’s experiences as a member of the latest Bainbridge Island Police Department’s Citizen’s Police Academy class. Anyone can apply to attend the periodic program, which gives participants a hands-on look at the function and duties of the BIPD and other local, related agencies. Call 206-842-5211 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info about the next academy.
Bainbridge Island Police Department Officer Gary Koon, the department’s primary firearms instructor, recently met with the current crop of Citizen’s Police Academy students to discuss “Use of Force Law.” It’s a timely and contentious subject that affects every American and proved to be one of the most thorough and engaging nights of the course yet.
My initial takeaway: Lethal shootings are a lot less common than you’d think.
According to the Washington Post, 991 people were shot dead by police in 2015 — and even less (963) in 2016 — despite the massive uptick in public and media attention. True, several of the 2016 cases proved especially controversial and indicative of larger problems in certain regional police departments, but the numbers don’t lie and they paint a very different picture than the nightly news.
Using the 2015 numbers (for which a more specific breakdown is available), we can see that the average person shot dead by police is an armed white male between the ages of 18 and 44 while in the process of committing a violent criminal act.
Here are the facts at a glance:
People shot dead by police in 2015
By weapon (Were they armed?)
Deadly weapon: 772
Toy weapon: 43
By signs of mental illness
Unknown or unclear: 737
Under 18: 18
By threat level
Attack in progress: 730
I’m willing to admit that those facts do not support what I had believed the reality to be. If I could be wrong about my perception of lethal police shootings, what else might I not have the full picture on? What about body cameras? I’m a big fan of police monitoring (see Part IV) and I’d think they would be, too. But that hasn’t been the case everywhere.
What follows is a Q&A with Officer Koon about the current state of police monitoring and the public perception of officer involved shootings. This transcript, a compilation of two separate discussions conducted via e-mail, has been formatted for length and clarity.
Me: Early on you mentioned how frustrating it can be that while pro sports events have many cameras recording every action, potential instances of deadly force utilization are often recorded by only one or two cameras — if any at all. If that is true, and video recording of said instances is so essential to analysis by professionals after the fact, why does there appear to be such pushback from certain factions within the world of law enforcement to the mandatory wearing of body cameras? I believe certain cities were even discussing maybe paying cops extra as an incentive to get them to wear cameras.
Koon: If I conveyed frustration … that was not my intent. The fact that there will likely be only one camera angle (if any) from which to review and evaluate a use of force is just the way it is. I was trying to convey that one camera angle doesn’t necessarily give the whole story from which to judge a critical use of force incident. I used the example of the pro sports event to say, even with nine cameras and multiple referees on hand, sometimes it’s still difficult to figure out what happened.
Bottom line up front: Most officers and agencies recognize that video is important and in their future, but there are still technological, social, civil liberties, statutory and policy issues that need to be worked out in order to protect the public, the officers and the agencies.
Me: Do you think there is, or have you heard of there being, a general opposition to the idea within the professional community?
Koon: In my opinion, and in the opinion of most officers I have talked to, body cameras, and cameras on vehicles, will be as much a part of law enforcement in the future as a badge and a gun. It’s generally a common opinion that this is inevitable. Again, most officers I have talked to regarding body worn cameras recognize this, but they also recognize the issues that need to be worked out. There are technological, social, statutory and policy hurdles that must be crossed before you will likely see wide spread use of body cameras by law enforcement around the country. Some departments, and some unions, are pushing back on mandatory camera use for all officers all the time, but each has different reasons.
Me: What might some common or reasonable objections be? Koon really went above and beyond on this one, breaking it down for me into departmental and union-based concerns. The subject is much more involved and complicated than I, or most of the not directly involved Americans, probably believe.
Koon: Departments’ reasons to resist [include]:
Cost. This is quickly becoming a non-issue as the price of equipment and more importantly, the price of video storage (especially in the cloud) drops. Cameras are just one of the costs, there are a lot more.
Video storage. It’s an issue. Besides just the cost for example, if you have video of a murder investigation, the Washington State Public Records Retention Requirement (see attached) is 75 years! It would be crazy to pay for cloud storage of video of a long-solved murder investigation for that long, so an agency has to figure out a way to transfer the video to a long-term storage.
Public records requests. This is the most recent, and most likely cause of local area resistance to body worn camera usage. Not too long ago, an individual was requesting copies of ALL videos taken by law enforcement. By law, the agencies had to redact certain elements of the video for privacy of the individuals involved. This one individual’s public records request shut down several nascent body worn camera programs out of fear of the financial penalties for not meeting public records requests in a timely manner. Additionally, most departments recognize that lots of video shows community members at the very worst moments in their life, so privacy concerns for individuals, victim, bystander and offenders, including folks in crisis, is very prominent in the list of considerations. There has been some legislation trying to address this, while balancing transparency and open government.
This is probably the biggest reason agencies around Washington are holding off on implementing body worn cameras. Statutory Law. The Washington state statutory law on this (RCW 9.73) is long and somewhat complex. It does not address all scenarios where an officer wears a body worn video camera. So there are still unanswered questions that need to get worked out.
Union reasons to resist [include]:
Mandatory use. If the policy is that an officer WILL use body cameras, exactly where is the line that I must start to record; upon contact with any member of the public (even a social contact to say hello to someone walking down the street because sometimes these turn into legitimate law enforcement contacts); upon being dispatched to a call or calling out on a scene; upon believing that an incident may need to be recorded? And if use is mandatory, what happens when I get caught up in an unexpected incident that I did not expect to occur, and I forget to turn on my camera because I was drawing my gun or Taser or physically fighting somebody? This can be mitigated somewhat with a pre-record on most cameras, but the public records folks have recently determined that pre-record video is a public record and subject to public records disclosure, which of course nobody can meet because all pre-records are on a loop and record over the past 30 seconds or so until you activate them.
What about when I don’t have a camera on my person because they have to be docked at the station to download? If there is a mandatory use policy, I will be out of policy if I don’t have a camera on me when I’m going home or coming to work (especially for county and city agencies that allow take-home cars) [Author’s note: Bainbridge does].
In my opinion, if we are going to purchase the cameras, and mandate their use, we also need to purchase the technology, equipment and software to ensure the officer can meet the mandatory use requirement. Again, in my opinion, an officer should not have to worry about turning on their camera before they draw their gun to return fire if they are shot at unexpectedly. This is one of the scenarios where a camera is most needed, but least likely to be activated due to human factors. We need to protect the officers after the shooting, too, and a mandatory use policy with just the body worn camera that must be manually activated, may be more harmful than helpful if it is not activated because the public expects it.
There is technology to assist with this, but like most it must be purchased with taxpayer money, [have] a policy written about it, and training conducted. And like most technology, it occasionally fails.
Work Load. There can be a significant additional workload associated with mandatory use of body cameras, unless the agency pays the additional cost of matching the video retention system with the 911 Dispatch System (not even possible to do on some dispatch systems). If the videos are not automatically matched and labeled, then I have to spend between 30-60 minutes, sometimes more, labeling each video. On a busy day, I can have 20 videos to label. This issue will likely get better as the technology, and more specifically the back-end software improves, but today it is still a consideration.
Work Conditions. Having a camera recording everything you do and say is definitely a change in work conditions. Try it sometime. It changes everyone’s behavior for the better, but it is also a little discerning to know that everything you say and do, even the smallest detail, could be analyzed and scrutinized, can add some stress to an already stressful job. With Washington state’s public records laws, it’s almost guaranteed that I will end up on YouTube at some point in the future.
Me: Wow, that’s way more complicated than I ever thought. I imagine future generations will look back on this as a pivotal era in law enforcement history, a time of critical change, however things end up being resolved.
Koon: Most officers recognize that, most likely, at some point in the future their entire work day on patrol will be recorded by one or more video cameras. The camera technology is capable of that today, it’s the social acceptance, law and policy guidance that is lagging behind the technology. Imagine the privacy and civil liberty issues that we must address with having every patrol officer record every second they are on patrol. Now start adding automated facial recognition and vehicle license plate recognition (both technologies are available now) to the mix of issues to address, and you start to see that the idea of having every officer wear a body worn camera all the time seems simple and a no-brainer, but gets a little more complex when you try to balance privacy and civil liberties with government transparency and public records requirements.