Who controls when police body cameras are turned on and off?

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Jon Epstein is a member of the police review board.
Jon Epstein is a member of the police review board.

by Jordan Green

A two-year old case involving a police body camera that stopped recording at a crucial point during a vehicle stop prompts at least one member of the police review board to support policy change. Police Chief Barry Rountree said the proposal is new to him, and it that such a change is likely not feasible.

The Winston-Salem Citizens Police Review Board, an 11-member citizen panel that reviews complaints against police employees, heard a case in the summer of 2012 involving two African-American male college students who were stopped by a patrol officer while driving a Lexus through the West End neighborhood.

The incident was partially recorded by a body-worn police camera, one the first of a batch that was rolled out in late 2011 and early 2012.

Jon Epstein, a sociology professor at Greensboro College who serves on the review board, recalled that the officer asked the occupants of the vehicle if they would consent to a search, and then claimed there was a “powerful odor of marijuana” leading him to believe there was “a substantial amount” of drugs in the car. He called in the K9 unit to sniff the car. Then, the audio-visual feed from the body camera failed. The officer maintained that the camera malfunctioned.

The search turned up some residual marijuana dust from a grinder, Epstein said, adding that the miniscule amount undermined the officer’s contention that officer had actually smelled it. Meanwhile, the young men said the officer spoke to them disrespectfully, and they were upset that the police dogs tore up the car. The missing audio-visual document would have helped the police review board make a determination as to whether the officer was in the wrong or not. Specifically, Epstein said, hearing what the officer said to the young men and what they said back to him could have shed light on whether the officer had probable cause to search the car.

“There is a scraping sound and then the tape went off,” said Epstein, who is a veteran musician. “I’ve been in recording studios, so I know what it sounds like when you switch something off. But just because it’s true in my heart doesn’t mean it holds up as a legal matter. This isn’t evangelical Christianity; this is jurisprudence.”

The body cameras were supposed to prevent just this kind of uncertainty.

“We hope it will improve public trust and show we’re being transparent,” police Chief Barry Rountree told the public safety committee of city council this September, when the department rolled out another wave of body cameras as part of an effort to eventually equip every officer with the device.

“It’s a two-way street,” the chief added. “If the officer is accused of doing something he didn’t do, we’ll have proof. The camera is an unbiased observer.”

The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. was fresh in mind for Councilman James Taylor, the chair of the public safety committee.

“The thought was that the purchase of those body cameras helps prevent those types of incidents by making sure that both parties are accountable and gives us a true account of what actually happened in situations like this,” he said at the time.

Long before the Ferguson shooting, Epstein said the review of the West End traffic stop prompted board members to talk about implementing changes that would remove the decision about when to turn the cameras on and off from the officer’s control.

“We had a very serious discussion about how do we make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Epstein recalled. “That was not a hostile conversation with the police. They appeared to be glad we were looking into it because they had gone to so much trouble to implement this system.”

Currently, Winston-Salem police officers with body cameras are required to turn on the devices every time they have an encounter with a citizen, and to turn them off when the encounter is over. Rountree and his staff have said that there’s an internal discipline process for officers who fail to adhere to the policy. While officers control when the cameras are turned on and off, Rountree said they do not have the ability to go back and edit footage.

“The body camera storage is through a third party,” Rountree said in an interview last week. “The officer can’t go back and change anything. He can’t do anything except upload the video.”

Epstein would like to see the police department revise its policy so that a third party, say a dispatcher or someone working in the police records section, turns on the cameras every time an officer responds to a call, activates his blue lights or steps out of his car. Epstein said most, if not all, of his fellow board members supported the idea.

“The overall attitude is similar to mine,” he said during an interview last week. “I don’t know if I can take credit for it. If I didn’t bring it up, I jumped right on it. The idea that we can make it better was definitely unanimous. When we found out that the department is already covering it, that took some of the pressure off. Why make a recommendation if the department is already taking action?”

The only problem with the proposed fix is that the police and a representative of the city attorney’s office contend that no such change is afoot, and that in fact this is the first they’ve heard of it.

“You’re talking to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Rountree said. “He hasn’t talked to me, and he hasn’t talked to the body camera administrator. There’s not such a camera system available…. We didn’t jump into this without researching what’s on the market right now. What he’s talking about doing is not possible for a machine or a third party.”

Sgt. Scott Wright, the department’s body-camera administrator, also said he was unfamiliar with the idea. “I’ve not heard any discussion within the department about allowing a third party to control the cameras,” he said.

Deputy City Attorney Al Andrews, whom Epstein said was present during the discussions, also said he was unfamiliar with the proposal. “I’m not aware of a specific recommendation about third-party control and monitoring of police video cameras,” he said.

When informed that city officials said they were unaware of any discussion of the revisions to the policy and had no intentions of moving in that direction, Epstein insisted that both the deputy city attorney and a liaison from the police department were present for the conversation.

“I know they heard us when we said we wanted to make this change,” Epstein said.

Ed McCarter, who was appointed to the board by Mayor Allen Joines in 2011, said he recalls the discussion. McCarter said he resigned from the board, among other reasons, because of his frustration over unanswered questions about how the body cameras are operated. “I was concerned about how long the information was kept,” he said. “Why is it that it seems like sometimes the camera was not on? It bothered me that they could control when the camera is on or off. If they want to hit you in the back of the head, they’ll turn the camera off. I think that’s something everybody should be concerned about is who has control over the camera.”

For the time being, Epstein said, he’s content to stick with the current policy, but if video recording of a crucial event disappears again, he will push for a formal recommendation.

Rountree said malfunction is always a possibility.

“Any piece of technology — whether it’s your cell phone or TV — is subject to malfunction at all times,” he said. Even if it were it technologically feasible, Rountree said he isn’t sold on the idea that the decision about when to turn body cameras on and off should be taken away from the officer.

“I can see where it could hurt with certain victims, and you wouldn’t want to have it on camera,” the chief said. “You don’t want to have something where someone is not dressed. As long as you have people, this technology is not going to be foolproof. With rape victims or juveniles you wouldn’t want that recorded.”

Notwithstanding the incident involving the Lexus traffic stop in the West End — or conflicting accounts about what was or wasn’t said during past meetings — Epstein said he wants to avoid an adversarial relationship between the review board and the police. And on the whole he gives the Winston-Salem police high marks for maintaining a low rate of negative interactions with community members.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s they started talking about community policing,” Epstein said. “They realized it was the best model, and they stuck with it. Winston-Salem is fortunate in that it’s a community that’s the right size to do something. The police here are also members of the community.”

An officer-involved shooting of the type that set off civil unrest in Ferguson and the rest of the country is unlikely to happen in Winston-Salem precisely because the police take care to minimize negative interactions with citizens, Epstein said. In fact, the Ferguson shooting hasn’t even come up as a subject for discussion during review board meetings.

“I would be very surprised if everybody wasn’t cognizant of it,” Epstein said. “If anything, there’s an understanding that we’re not that. So we should keep doing what we’re doing.”

All the same, he said, the reason he and other board members push for accountability is to ensure that nothing like the shooting of Michael Brown goes down in Winston-Salem on their watch.