Oakland cops disciplined 24 times for failing to turn on body-worn cameras
Punishments ranged from "written reprimand" to suspensions of a few days.
OAKLAND, Calif.—Over the last two years, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) has disciplined police officers on 24 occasions for disabling or failing to activate body-worn cameras, newly released public records show. The City of Oakland did not provide any records prior to 2013, and the OPD did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.
The records show that on November 8, 2013 one officer was terminated after failing to activate his camera. Less than two weeks later, another resigned for improperly removing the camera from his or her uniform. However, most officers received minor discipline in comparison.
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The OPD has used Portable Digital Recording Devices (PDRDs) since late 2010. According to the department's own policy, patrol officers are required to wear the cameras during a number of outlined situations, including detentions, arrests, and serving a warrant. At present, the city has about 700 officers.
This year the issue of body-worn cameras on police officers came to the fore after the tragic killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of local cops. In the aftermath of grand jury decisions to not indict the officers responsible, the Obama administration released a review of how local law enforcement agencies use equipment, proposing that the federal government spend $263 million over three years to "expand training for law enforcement agencies (LEAs)" and "add more resources for police department reform." The review included a proposal to dedicate $75 million over three years to buy up to 50,000 body cameras for local LEAs.
Because body-worn cameras are still relatively new, there aren't any published studies on rates of non-compliance, according to John DeCarlo, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the former chief of police of Branford, Connecticut.
"You may have a legitimate excuse [for not turning it on], but if it was nefarious, that's a different story," DeCarlo told Ars.
What happened on November 22, 2013?
In Oakland, the cameras were acquired largely as the result of a federal lawsuit alleging abuse by four officers known as "The Riders." In 2003, the City of Oakland and the OPD agreed with the plaintiffs to a settlement, which required the authorities to pay more than $10 million in fines and impose numerous reforms. The four officers were subsequently fired from the OPD, although one remains a federal fugitive after fleeing to Mexico. None of the other three officers were convicted.
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The new data shows that the most common punishment for officers who did not comply with their own department’s policy was a "written reprimand" or a suspension of one to three days. One officer was even suspended for 20 days in December 2013 due to an allegation of failing to activate his body-worn camera.
On November 22, 2013, there were five separate incidents where officers allegedly "improperly removed" or "failed to initiate their PDRD." One of those officers, none of whom were named, appears to have resigned as a result of the incident. Ars has filed another public records request to learn more about these incidents.
Watching the watchers
As a result of the city’s settlement in the Riders case (formally known as the Negotiated Settlement Agreement), an independent monitor is required to prepare a quarterly report detailing the OPD’s compliance record. Its most recent report, dated October 30, 2014, notes that in three cases, PDRD "recordings directly contradicted" statements made by witness or complainants against OPD officers.
However the report added:
During our last review, we found that there were no cases in which the failure to activate a PDRD went unaddressed. There was one case, however, in which the discipline was sufficient but follow-up was needed. In that case the officer had failed to activate his PDRD on three separate occasions. While we felt that the discipline imposed was adequate, we commented that the officer’s supervisor should more closely monitor his activities. A key responsibility of sergeants is to ensure that the officers they are supervising are complying with OPD policies. In the future, the supervisor could easily compare and review the officer’s activities with his PDRD recordings to ensure that he is in compliance with OPD policies. An additional benefit of review of PDRD recordings would be that the sergeant would be able to evaluate the officer’s tactics and interactions with citizens. We learned that OPD has followed up with this officer to ensure that he remains in compliance with the PDRD policy. His current supervisor conducts monthly audits of his PDRD use and submits audit forms up his chain of command.
On November 18, 2014, OPD supervisors were reminded that they are required under department policy to conduct random reviews of PDRD footage.