Police turn body cams into tools for public relations, not accountability

Las Vegas police investigate a side street on October 2, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department faced a voracious, frustrated media in the days after 58 concert-goers were gunned down by a fusillade raining from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay resort. The motive of the deceased shooter remained a mystery, and unanswered questions abounded about his seemingly banal background and how he assembled his mass murder armory inside a heavily surveilled casino-hotel.

Then, at a press conference on October 3, Undersheriff Kevin McMahill tossed the jackals some red meat: A compilation of three minutes of footage from body cameras worn by police during the October 1 massacre. “I think this video will speak for itself,” McMahill said, “but I’ll kind of narrate a little bit for you as we go through.” As one might expect, what unspooled were jerky sequences in which officers yelled at concert-goers to take cover or run a certain way amid intermittent riots of gunfire.

ICYMI: We analyzed headlines around the Las Vegas shooting. There were some unsettling trends.

The media, of course, ate it up. Nobody quizzed McMahill about why this particular footage had been selected or when, if ever, the rest of what must be dozens of hours of video from hundreds of officers responding to the massacre would be available. The only reporter questions McMahill took were about how they could obtain their own copies of the file to show on their sites and newscasts.

But the swift release of the Vegas video did raise eyebrows among police transparency activists who have spent years first pushing officers to wear body cams and then for departments to make footage available to the public in a timely, organized manner. The Vegas video, which merely illustrated the horror’s chaos, added little to the public’s understanding of the event that wasn’t already obvious from countless videos shot on concert-goer smartphones and circulating widely in the media.

Instead, it felt like just the latest example of a police department using footage from body-worn cameras to promote itself or its own particular version of a story. Two weeks later, as questions festered about the shifting timeline of the shooting and the response of police inside the Mandalay Bay, Vegas police released no further footage even though it could, in theory, clarify the precise times and locations of all officers in the hotel.

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“What we’re seeing in practice on the ground is that even though body cams were sold to us as a police accountability tool, they’re really being used for public relations purposes, to make the police look good,” says Alex Vitale, Brooklyn College sociologist and author of “The End of Policing.” “The media should be asking for unedited footage and should be demanding access to footage that plays a role in accountability, not in PR.”

Harlan Yu, a principal at the Washington-based technology policy research organization Upturn, found the Vegas police’s decision baffling because “I’m not sure exactly what the purpose was. The suspect is dead. What kind of transparency were they really trying to provide into this situation?” Jumana Musa, senior privacy counsel or the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also was flummoxed: “In the middle of a fairly horrific and massive crime, wouldn’t they have had something better to do with their time than putting together this little best-of hits off of the body-cam video,” she says. “I mean, they weren’t falling under criticism for their behavior.”

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For their part, Vegas police asserted via e-mail to CJR that the footage did, in fact, have news value. “The mass shooting at Mandalay Bay was obviously a unique situation,” a spokesman wrote. “It was decided early on that releasing a small portion of body-worn camera footage from the shooting location would accurately communicate the extreme danger faced by concert-goers and the officers scrambling to save them.”

It certainly proved popular. Unsurprisingly, the police’s footage ran virtually on repeat on cable news in the following days. TMZ called the video “terrifying,” Maxim.com and People both touted it as “chilling” and Inside Edition dubbed it “pulse-pounding” and “heart-stopping.” The LA Times and NBC’s Today each drew about a half-million YouTube views for their use of the footage. Even Russia Today nabbed more than 22,000 views by posting it.

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THE VEGAS FOOTAGE is only the most high-profile recent example of police departments discovering the benefits of material over which, in most cases, they have sole control and discretion. YouTube is awash in video voluntarily released by police that show such heroics as: the rescue of an autistic Topeka, Kansas, boy from a pond; people being pulled alive from a burning car in Atlanta, officers in Albuquerque reviving a puppy and administering first-aid to an epileptic baby with seizures; and a cop in Hamden, Connecticut tackling a suicidal man about to leap from a building. Body-cam footage has even spawned a YouTube channel, PoliceActivity, that boasts more than 360,000 subscribers and has amassed more than 137 million views.

“We believed that there was a public interest in seeing the video and that it could benefit law enforcement as a positive story,” Topeka Police legal advisor Luther Ganieany wrote in response to CJR questions about the May pond-rescue footage. “Therefore, we elected to discretionarily release the video. We blurred the faces of individuals on the video out of respect for privacy. We also redacted a swear word made by the officer when he discovered his radio had gotten wet and wouldn’t work.”

The 80-second Topeka video proved just how far a little video of a relatively routine incident in the lives of police can go. Ganieany said the department posted it on Facebook, “thinking it could help with community relations and recruiting new officers,” and he was soon slammed with media requests. Outlets from People to the Daily Mail in Great Britain picked up the story, and ABC News reunited the cop and the boy for a segment on Good Morning America.

All of that would be fine, body-cam advocates say, if departments were more consistent about how and when they provide public access to raw, unedited body-worn camera recordings. Instead, they say, there’s this haphazard practice in which footage in controversial situations such as officer-involved shootings can be difficult to obtain.

“I have a little Twitter notification for body cam video, and I noticed when looking through them, a lot of them are positive things—police rescuing someone, maybe getting a cat out of a tree or officers exercising restraint—which is good and terrific and I’m glad those videos are out there so the public can see what law enforcement officers are doing and doing well, but you can’t have it both ways,” says Adam Marshall of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re going to release everything that makes us look good and then withhold everything in which there are questions of what law enforcement did in a particular situation.’”

The push to have officers wear cameras emerged over the past decade in response primarily to complaints from minority communities about how police interacted with them and to provide more accountability in cases of officer-involved shootings and other deadly encounters. Many police departments agreed to adopt the technology—at great expense to taxpayers—in part to counter the onslaught of bystander cell-phone video that they said often gave inaccurate views of controversial incidents. Advocates also expected the cameras would change police behavior, a theory that a study of 2,000 police officers in Washington, DC, suggests is off base. The 18-month study, released Friday, found the body cams had no effect on use-of-force incidents and civilian complaints.

“Billions of dollars are being spent on body cameras and storage, and the reason for that is to foster accountability of police,” says Barry Friedman, director of New York University’s Policing Project and author of Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission. “You can’t have accountability without access. Without access, you get another tool for police and prosecutors to use in prosecution and new concerns for the public about privacy. What’s important is that there is an upfront policy that does not include cherry-picking. Their legitimacy in this regard is going to be determined in the long run by the public’s perception if the release of body camera footage is being gamed.”

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RULES FOR RELEASE of body-cam footage vary from state to state, department to department, and even case to case. In states where it falls under a public records law, the police usually have wide discretion to exempt the material from release on grounds it might violate someone’s privacy or is part of an ongoing criminal investigation. Other departments have made fulfilling requests prohibitively expensive, as in the cases where the Sarasota police billed the ACLU $18,000 and the New York Police Department demanded $36,000 of the news channel NY1 to fulfill records requests.

Atlanta Police spokesman Carlos Campos says the decision to release is “just a lot easier” when it’s a non-controversial event. “Where we’ve released them for positive purposes because there’s really not a question about the incident.”

In the case of Las Vegas police, the spokesman said the department takes pride in being “the only law enforcement agency in the world with a consistent history of releasing officer body worn camera footage pertaining to critical incidents, primarily in relation to incidents in which officers used deadly force.” The spokesman pointed CJR to the department’s “Use of Deadly Force” YouTube channel, where every media briefing about an officer-involved shooting since April 2013 is posted.

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Yet a careful review of the more than 130 videos on that channel shows that body-worn camera video is played in some cases but not others, is always presented with a narration by the officer giving the briefing, and is almost never the full, unedited video or inclusive of all footage shot from every officer present at an event. The spokesperson responding to CJR acknowledged as much, explaining that “when it helps explain the officer’s actions, our press conferences often feature the release of body-worn camera footage.”

“That is the opposite of accountability,” Vitale says. “Putting a PR video clip out is obscuring reality.”

The Vegas case also points to an inconsistent policies about release of video that occur within the same event. The three-minute clip was voluntarily shared two days after the massacre when the police were being widely praised for their heroics, and it reinforced a beneficial narrative for the the agency. But two weeks later, after the sheriff had changed the official timeline of the massacre in a way that suggests a faster response to the floor and suite where 64-year-old Stephen Paddock was staging his assault could have altered the outcome, the department declined to release further video from other officers or even comment on why.

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EFFORTS ARE AFOOT to reform how body-cam footage is managed, but most of those aimed at expanding access face steep odds. In California, a pending bill written by Assemblyman Phil Ting would require the release of body-cam footage under the public records law and force police departments to formally justify decisions not to release it. That bill has been tabled until at least January, and in the meantime local departments are working on the issue on their own. The Los Angeles Police Commission, a civilian board overseeing the LA Police Department, is expected in the next month to announce a new policy.

Body camera footage “wasn’t meant to be edited, it wasn’t meant to be changed, it was meant to be raw footage that people could look at and form their own decision whether law enforcement is doing or not doing their jobs,” Ting says. “We need a statewide policy so the public knows when they can get footage and not. And if it’s not released, it has to be for a legitimate reason.”

One lofty solution floated by both Vitale and the NACDL’s Musa would compel police departments to give control over the release and usage of body-cam footage to an independent third party. Yet the current legislative trend is clearly towards restricting, not expanding, public access to footage. In New Jersey, an attorney general directive requires a court order for body-cam footage related to a criminal investigation to be released in most instances. In Texas, lawmakers have exempted all body-cam footage from any form of disclosure except when it is used as evidence in a criminal case. A law in Iowa makes all footage requestable only by people featured in it, leaving no avenue for independent media access.

Police departments insist they don’t only release footage in favorable instances. Topeka police, Ganieany notes, acceded to media requests in August 2015 to release an unedited 14-minute video of a startled cop shooting a retired judge’s 26-pound dog. “That incident resulted in significant criticism for the department, additional training for officers and a change in our policy,” he says. “I don’t believe it is a fair criticism to say that we only release videos that favor us.”

Still, the absence of consistent policies keeps these decisions squarely in the hands of police and provides little recourse for appeal. Yu said he wishes the media would be more critical and circumspect when using the footage provided by police, rather than merely tossing it online or on the air so willingly. “The media’s job is to insist on consistency,” Yu says. “There may very well be footage from the Vegas incident that doesn’t show officers acting in the right way. It certainly seems to be the case that Las Vegas police were cherry-picking the good from the bad and just showing the good stuff.” (Las Vegas police say they have no plans to release any more massacre footage.)

By and large, that rarely happens. If anything, police departments are realizing just how useful it can be to exploit journalists’ eagerness for video for their websites.

“The media absolutely love body-cam footage, they ask us for it,” says Campos, the Atlanta Police spokesman. “They learn about these incidents, they cover them. They come to us and they say, ‘Can we get body-cam? Can we get dashcam?’ It’s almost the new ‘it’ thing.”

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Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor and a journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Follow him at @SteveFriess.