Whether it's a small internal affairs investigation
or a deadly force incident, some boss will be pulling the patrol car
video. And nothing spells funny business more than discovering
that the incident was never recorded.
By now, most agencies have patrol cars equipped
with either digital or analog video cameras, and most have policies
governing their use. Often, the units are required to be set to
the "on" position and will go into record mode when activated manually
or when the emergency lights of the vehicle are activated.
In a post-incident investigation when it is
discovered that there was no recording, there will be repercussions
which can be very serious.
If it is a defense attorney who makes this
discovery the officer will be asked on the stand, "Were you purposely
ignoring your agency's rules or were you just incompetent."
It will not matter if the officer just forgot to set the camera to the
"on" position. The defense attorney will accuse the officer of
having unethical or illegal intentions with his or her client.
If it is a high profile incident, it will be very
embarrassing to both the officer and the department. Our
detractors will be front and center with their two cents, and the media
will do their part with wall to wall coverage and attack editorials.
Consider a recent case out of Austin, Texas where
this exact scenario played out with a high profile case where deadly
force was used. The following is an editorial which appeared in
Austin American Statesman, a local paper:
It is not clear why the video and audio recording equipment in
Senior Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana's patrol car was not
activated when he attempted to arrest suspects in a parked car. It's
also unclear why another camera in a backup unit also was not
An investigation will determine whether the cameras weren't
working or simply weren't activated. What is clear is that officers
are required to have their cameras rolling for all traffic and
pedestrian stops, sobriety tests and pursuits.
Quintana's camera wasn't rolling, however, when the officer
encountered Nathaniel Sanders II, 18, and two other young men in a
parked car in an East Austin apartment complex. The occupants of the
automobile were thought to be connected to an incident involving
The encounter ended with Sanders dead and Sir Lawrence Smith
wounded. It is a case that underscores the value of video cameras
and recording equipment. Cameras can be a police officer's best
friend. If the officer is following procedure and policy, the camera
is there to record that. Likewise, the camera captures behavior of
officers who abuse their badges. Because the cameras are incapable
of bias, they are invaluable in boosting public trust in the police
At the moment, Chief Art Acevedo says the shooting appears
lawful. Police say Quintana shot and killed Sanders, one of three
black men in the parked Mercedes Benz, after Sanders went for a gun.
A gun was found inside the automobile. As the chief pointed out, an
officer is trained to meet lethal force with lethal force. He also
noted that the investigation is not complete.
In the coming weeks, Acevedo must answer why the video and
audio recorders were not engaged in Quintana's patrol car and in the
vehicle of a backup officer. Those devices automatically record
whenever a patrol car's emergency lights or sirens are activated.
And if they were broken, that is not an excuse because officers are
required to test their recorders prior to going out on shifts. With
few exceptions, police policy prohibits officers from taking patrol
cars with faulty, broken or malfunctioning equipment.
Acevedo must get tough on officers who fail to follow camera
procedures. This city has seen too many incidents in which the
simple act of turning on a camera could have prevented turmoil,
distrust and division.
Tensions between police and the minority community were
further inflamed when it was discovered that an officer failed to
capture the 2005 shooting death of Daniel Rocha on his video camera,
which was not activated. But police video in the 2006 case involving
Michael Clark, who died after being stunned several times with a
Taser, helped dispel claims of police brutality against a black
Acevedo wants to upgrade to digital recorders that would
automatically turn on and run all the time. The police union
supports that initiative, but the city does not have the $8 million
to buy digital cameras. As it stands, the minimum penalty for
failure to activate video recorders is a written reprimand, with the
maximum being a three-day suspension. Acevedo said that most
officers follow the rules. But he acknowledged there are some who
don't. And those few are creating problems for the many.
That is why penalties should be enhanced. It's a matter of
credibility and good policing.
Let's face it, there are generally two reasons for
an incident not getting recorded: it's either the occasional mistake in
properly setting up a camera for the shift or the old school hold-out
whose stubbornness gets the better of his common sense. Either
way, an undesirable result is almost guaranteed.
Police and Law Enforcement News
Sunday, May 17, 2009 11:50 p.m.