Body Cameras, Perception, and Optics: Building Transparency With Smart Policy

Body cameras have long been an object of great public fanfare, but bodycams represent something far more challenging to the law enforcement agencies tasked with the realities of utilizing them. Despite immense support from members of the public, prominent nonprofits, and law enforcement agencies themselves [PDF link], the growing body of research surrounding their effectiveness has been in question.  Departments across the country have likewise been forced to endure the medium’s inherent budgetary and technological challenges, struggling to secure funding and information resources capable of managing the devices and their rather large storage requirements.

Budgetary and technological hurdles can be daunting for agencies to overcome. More challenging yet is public perception. While the public is increasingly willing to accept video footage as an objective “arbiter of behavior,” as one 2014 LA Times piece notes, several controversial law enforcement incidents prove that the scenes they capture are typically an imperfect record. In the rare event a device captures every bit of a situation exactly as an officer, suspect, or onlooker describes, no video-capture hardware can perfectly describe the way context, emotion, and even adrenaline color the events as they actually unfold.

Then there is the matter of policy and handling. Recent history is rife with situations in which mismanagement and obfuscation of video evidence — captured from body camera, dash camera, CCTV, or another format altogether — makes the law enforcement agency look worse in the public’s eye than the behavior in question itself. This applies whether the evidence damns officers, redeems them, or comes back inconclusive. Because body cams have become a symbol of law enforcement transparency, perceived mishandling of their data can easily cast individual officers’ behavior and the larger agency’s motives into doubt. The result, as with so many other instances of breakthrough law enforcement technology, leaves departments to walk a precariously thin line. The agency’s natural tendency towards self-protection becomes less and less compatible with the need to generate community goodwill and positive public relations, regardless of the high-level approach to footage it chooses to take.

Hogg shooting underscores perceptual challenges of body cameras

Though overshadowed by more visible events in terms of media coverage, California’s 2015 officer-involved shooting (OIS) of Demouria Hogg highlights this lesson in detail. Captured body camera footage of the events, which does little to refute or reject claims set forth by the Oakland Police Department (OPD), rests at the center of the OIS and calls to mind questions that have followed bodycams since their push into the mainstream. Should a department release footage when it fails to mirror statements made by attending officers? Perhaps more importantly, should the public automatically reject the department’s claims or question its motives when it fails to meet demands in this regard?

The demonstrable facts of the following OIS have all the makings of a controversy, with race, officer honesty, and snap judgment all coming into play (and, at various times over the years, coming into question). Hogg, 30, was found asleep in the driver’s seat of his BMW early one June morning. A handgun, found later to be loaded, was in the passenger seat beside him. After attempting less abrasive wakeup methods for over an hour — which included tapping on the window, shouting through a loudspeaker, and firing beanbag rounds at the car’s door — officers attempted more drastic measures, shattering the driver’s side window and confronting Hogg directly.

Mere seconds later, Hogg was dead. An officer in lethal coverage stance, later named as Nicole Rhodes, fired two rounds into the BMW’s windshield just before another officer, providing Rhodes less-lethal support, shot a Taser through the broken driver’s side glass. Officer Rhodes was paraphrased in the East Bay Express piece as follows:

“[Rhodes had] a difficult time seeing Hogg through the glare of the windshield, but she told investigators that she saw him lean back and reach with his left hand toward the passenger seat, where she knew there was a gun.”

Any shooting under these circumstances is bound to draw controversy, controversies that body cameras are ostensibly intended to quell. However, the medium’s imperfections only added to the confusion, and to criticism of the department and officers on the scene. Indeed, the loud, chaotic scene captured on video [graphic content warning] supports any argument one cares to make. Those inclined to believe Rhodes­ can say she clearly waited to fire her service weapon. Others, who may doubt her honesty or decision making, can point to the video’s poor quality, or the fact that no other officers warn of the suspect reaching for the weapon prior to Rhodes’s firing.

Realistically, anyone familiar with law enforcement and the tense situations officers face could be hard-pressed to blame Rhodes for her decision. She escaped sanctions after an investigating DA found she acted according to policy. As the officer providing primary fire, she was not only responsible for her own safety in the face of a citizen within arm’s reach of a deadly weapon, but the safety of the officers who had to extract him. Whether Hogg did “lean back and reach […] toward the passenger seat” or she simply perceived things that way in the stress of the situation, it would be difficult to attribute the two rounds she fired to malice. Officers are taught from day one to practice extreme caution in the presence of any weapon, let alone a handgun. Rhodes only had one chance to deal with a high-pressure situation.

The city would come to settle with Hogg’s family for $1.2 million following a lawsuit. At this point, the matter might have been closed, save for an outraged public and its demands for bodycam footage. Thus, two years after the settlement and more than three years after the shooting, the OPD released the video.

What can we learn from Oakland’s handing of the Demouria Hogg OIS?

Although the OPD’s handling of the Hogg footage is somewhat questionable from a public relations perspective, it is nevertheless understandable why the agency appeared to drag its feet on the release of the footage. The matter was largely settled from a functional perspective, the shooting’s principal actor had been cleared of wrongdoing and the city had settled for no small sum, presumably choosing a one-time cost over a protracted legal battle.

On the other hand, so-called optics are more important for today’s law enforcement than perhaps any other time in modern history. The ongoing refusal to submit video footage to a clamoring public undoubtedly allowed critics to draw their own conclusions. In a world where there are more cameras than ever to catch officers engaging in undesirable behavior, there is a clear sense among some critics that refusal to release footage is tantamount to admitting wrongdoing. In other words, certain members of the public may think an organization only withholds footage when it has something to hide.

In Hogg’s case, this charge is arguably untrue — if the video does not show Hogg reaching for the weapon, it largely supports the sequence of events relayed to the public. As an assemblyman quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle notes, however, a delay in and of itself can do much to “erode public trust” in vital institutions such as law enforcement.

While recent legislative action takes the decision out of the individual agency’s hands, differences in approach prior to the bill’s passage highlight just how true this statement can be. In San Francisco, a city overtly concerned with transparency and public trust under a reform banner, recorded uses of force were shown at town hall meetings under a relatively strict ten-day timeline. Nearby cities, the Chronicle piece says, generally only showed those recordings that showed the department in good light. While no hard public-trust numbers comparing Oakland and San Francisco appear to exist for the Hogg shooting’s timeline — and while it would be futile to compare the two on basis of video policy alone — it is at least clear which approach gives critics a larger foothold to accuse a department of impropriety.

Looking beyond California, the message this comparison sends is similarly clear. If bodycams themselves are not a panacea for transparency and public trust in the best of circumstances, the effect brought on by a questionable release policy is often extremely damaging. The public, ever tech-savvy, knows when they are being spoon-fed moments curated for maximum positive effect, and widespread use of social media allows them to spread the notion further than ever before. Thus, if body cameras themselves are viewed as an impartial observer, the individual agency must be extremely careful when choosing the methods by which it releases footage.

Conclusion: Policy, not cameras, should be focal point for law enforcement

Overall, it is unclear just how body cameras influence officer and public behavior. For every study that shows a reduction in unwarranted force or in public misbehavior, another suggests one or both may spike in the cameras’ presence. Far more obvious is the effect public perception can have on technology adoption, if the growing percentage of large departments using or planning to use the medium is any indication.

Though they have been a topic of attention for some time, body cameras are ultimately still in their infancy in terms of effective governance. It will be a long time before a department innovates standards and practices that work across the spectrum of agencies with little or no individual modification. As departments develop best practices, legislators push forth hard definitions and guidance, and the public’s view of video-footage-as-arbiter continues to evolve, agencies would be wise to remember video’s role beyond the investigatory and legal. Public perception matters, and as the events in Oakland show, a lack of video can be every bit as damning as footage released to public view.

Posted on Aug 27, 2019