Body cameras, policy changes and reform have impact on policing

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Chief Wayne Scott

by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott explains how policy changes have recently impacted his department as more reform around bias and accountability are on the horizon.

 

Even though the Greensboro Police Department won’t release footage from police-worn body cameras to the public, Chief Wayne Scott said the devices are leading to greater internal accountability. And the proof, he said, is in the 2014 Professional Standards Annual Report.

The 43-page report, which came out earlier this month, states that 104 of the 168 complaints last year came from inside the department — as opposed to a member of the public — and of those, 88 percent of the allegations in the internal complaints were proven. It’s the first time since the department began releasing the annual reports four years ago that internal complaints outpaced external ones, even though the number of residents’ complaints climbed from 48 to 64.

Even though the report groups external and internal complaints together, that categorization can be misleading, Scott said; internal complaints may more accurately be understood as investigations into whether employees followed protocol, and don’t necessarily suggest subordinates filing workplace grievances, he said. Instead, a significant portion of the increase in internal investigations, or complaints, stems from body-worn cameras, Scott said.

The department began with a yearlong trial period, warning officers that the department would begin enforcing rules about when cameras needed to be turned on for interactions with the public. Once the trial period expired, officers started being hit with internal complaints for violating policy.

Scott did not have specifics for the exact number of complaints that arose from body-camera issues, but also said a considerable segment of the internal complaints occurred upon review of footage from the cameras. The department always watches the body-camera footage from an interaction if there is an administrative investigation or complaint such as use of force or a pursuit. That additional “opportunity for review” led to more internal complaints, particularly for not adhering to the department’s discourtesy rules.

“We have a generation where profanity comes a little easier to them,” Scott said, “and we won’t allow it.”

In the past, if a member of the public didn’t complain about the interaction, the department wouldn’t review it, and even if it did, video evidence was rare. But the cameras provide a tool for an unbiased review of what occurred between an officer and a civilian, allowing the department to hold its officers to a higher standard of conduct, Scott said.

“We’ve raised the bar every year on the expectations on our officers,” Scott said.

In that sense, he added, more internal complaints show a department that holds its officers to a rigorous standard, which is a good thing.

Courtesy violations were also big for external complaints; the report shows that courtesy violations continued to be the most frequent allegation from the public.

Even though external complaints rose from 2013 to 2014, allegations of excessive use of force dropped by 21 percent. Likewise, the use of non-deadly force fell slightly from 289 incidents to 274, and Taser use dropped by 17 percent, according to the report.

Chief Scott said a change in policy about vehicle pursuits caused a marked decline in the number of chases — a 46 percent drop from the previous year. The department raised the threshold for when to break off a chase in minor cases, sometimes choosing to mail people tickets rather than engage in a possibly costly pursuit, he said. The estimated property damage from collisions stemming from chases was also almost cut in half.

Meanwhile the number of people injured more than doubled, jumping from eight to 19, and Scott said he is unsure of why.

Scott said the overall increase in external complaints, from 48 to 64, can partially be attributed to the department making it easier for the public to file grievances with the department. Those changes were brought about thanks to organizing by residents, who have also pushed for a considerable overhaul in the complaint and review process.

Scott said the department does not drive down the number of complaints by re-categorizing them as “inquiries,” — something is an inquiry only if the allegation in the complaint is entirely impossible, such as the officer accused didn’t work on the day in question, he said. Inquiries are still investigated, he said. Occasionally a complainant is deemed non-credible, but there is significant signoff required for someone to meet that threshold, such as filing incessant, false complaints, and there have only been three non-credible complainants in the department’s history.

Greensboro is one of the only police departments in the country that documents inquiries at all, he said, and more importantly, any bias-based complaint cannot be categorized as an inquiry regardless of whether the department deems it impossible.

Responding to calls for greater accountability through the city’s complaint review committee, or CRC, which independently reviews complaints about police conduct, the current city council approved changes recommended by a CRC enhancement subcommittee of council. The enhancement subcommittee, chaired by Mayor Nancy Vaughan, last met on April 9, 2014. It didn’t go far enough in its recommended reforms, according to local police-accountability advocates and activists like the Revs. Cardes Brown and Nelson Johnson.

And now, after a long hiatus, the council committee is rebooting with a meeting on June 22.

Human Relations Supervisor Allen Hunt, who works with the complaint review committee, said several of the previously-approved changes have been or will be implemented — like additional committee training likely from the ACLU — but others stalled due to required state law changes that appear unlikely.

“Really the stall I would say, if you want to use that word, would be in Raleigh instead of the local municipality in this case,” Hunt said. “Right now, with the current temperature in Raleigh, that is a tough situation.”

The legal and legislative components of the desired changes turned out to be more complicated than council anticipated, Hunt said, and there will be new changes to consider as well. A bill that would’ve allowed Greensboro to create a civilian review board with subpoena power and some quasi-judicial powers over the police department stalled in committee, Hunt said. A possible restructuring of city council, pushed in the NC General Assembly by state Sen. Trudy Wade, would also affect the composition of the complaint review committee, whose members are appointed by council, Hunt said.

And as the CRC enhancement subcommittee of city council reconvenes this month, just ahead of when filing starts for this year’s city council election, Chief Scott is planning to re-implement a reform-oriented committee of his own.

He’s pulling a bias-based policing committee back together. The initiative was launched under former chief Ken Miller to address real and perceived disparities in policing, particularly around race.

Like the data from the professional-standards report, Scott said the committee would provide valuable insight for the department and transparency to the public. In his eyes, it’s part of a trend towards accountability and higher standards, one that includes innovative approaches like mediation between external complainants and officers and one that disciplines its officers for misconduct even if there’s no external complaint.

That’s a sharp contrast from the characterization of local clergy with the Greensboro Pulpit Forum and many other advocates of greater accountability, some of whom have created their own, independent and unauthorized police complaint review board.

But Scott says the data, particularly the steady rate of sustained external complaints and the decline in use of force and related complaints, tell a different story.