Police body cameras cited as ‘powerful tool’ against stop-and-frisk abuses

  • >> Ashley Southall, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-12-01 10:36:22 BdST

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Police body cameras can help reduce the kind of bogus stops that have fuelled accusations of racial bias and harassment against police officers in New York City, according to a long-awaited report released Monday.

Officers who wore the devices reported almost 40% more stops than officers who did not, the report found, suggesting that body cameras could compel officers to provide a more accurate accounting of their pedestrian stops under the department policy known as stop-and-frisk.

Peter Zimroth, the federal monitor who prepared the report and is guiding changes to the stop-and-frisk policy, attributed the increase in documented stops to officers being more inclined to record their actions on official paperwork knowing that they were recorded and could be reviewed. Underreporting has hindered court-ordered reform efforts for years, but the report suggests that the cameras are key to understanding the scope of the problem and fixing it.

While body cameras are not a cure-all for policing problems, Zimroth said in the report, their ability to illuminate police encounters can be “a powerful tool for increasing transparency and accountability for officers, the public and for police officials.”

Underscoring critics’ claims that the stop-and-frisk policy still disproportionately affects people of colour, the report found that encounters were significantly more likely to involve Black or Hispanic people. They were also more likely to be deemed unlawful by supervisors reviewing the resulting video.

Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney for the Centre for Constitutional Rights and one of the lead plaintiffs’ lawyers in the stop-and-frisk case, said the New York study’s key findings suggest that the problems at the heart of the case — underreporting and racial bias — are much larger than previously known.

“Those two things together raise a red flag for me,” he said in an interview. “That would suggest that the stop data is actually hiding the true extent of the disparities and the true extent of the racial bias in stops.”

Charney said that he was disappointed that the monitor did not provide policy recommendations or dive deeper into the implication that the underreporting issue could be racially skewed.

Zimroth, who does not grant interviews, was appointed as a monitor by a federal judge who declared the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional in 2013. The study was designed to assess the risks and benefits of outfitting the city’s entire police force with body cameras, but the city went ahead with a departmentwide rollout before the yearlong pilot programme started in April 2017.

Alfred J Baker, a police spokesman, said the department welcomed the report, but it reflected outdated practices. Some 22,000 of the roughly 35,000 officers in the department wear the cameras, including all officers on patrol and in specialised units.

“The NYPD has long since deployed body-worn cameras for its entire patrol force to realise the benefits of increased transparency and better compliance by officers with the NYPD’s policies and procedures, including those relating to street stops,” he said.

The Police Department joined other law enforcement agencies in rapidly adopting the devices after cellphone video shed light on the police killings of Black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, and ignited nationwide unrest and calls for greater accountability for officers.

Some law enforcement agencies around the country, however, have stopped using the devices, citing the exorbitant costs of storing the resulting video footage and the lack of proof of their effectiveness. Zimroth said his study fills a research deficit and provides critical guidance to police officials weighing whether to adopt or keep body camera programs.

Police body cameras have generated more than 8 million videos since they were adopted in New York City, officials said last year, and officers record about 130,000 videos each week, according to the monitor. The devices are routinely used by police, prosecutors and the city’s civilian police watchdog agency to investigate crimes and review officer conduct in the line of duty.

The vast majority of the footage is shielded from the public, but police have released footage from incidents like fatal shootings to show why they believe officers’ actions were justified. Legal activists have also used the video to push for changes in department policies and procedures, like removing officers from calls dealing with people in mental or emotional crisis.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates accusations of police misconduct filed by civilians, has said that body-camera footage increases the likelihood that its investigators will be able to complete their investigations and substantiate claims against officers.

The report adds to a small body of research that has produced mixed findings on the benefits and limitations of body cameras. One study of 2,200 officers in Washington, DC, found that body cameras did not have a meaningful effect on officers’ behaviour, as measured by civilian complaints and uses of force.

The debate over the policy came to a head in New York in 2013, when Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the Police Department used the stops to target Black and Hispanic people without valid legal reason, in violation of the Constitution. The judge appointed Zimroth to oversee changes designed to bring the policy in line with the Constitution, including a pilot study of whether body cameras provided any remedial benefits.

Since then, stops have plummeted. Officers conducted 13,459 stops last year, down from 191,851 stops in 2013. At the peak of stop-and-frisk in 2011, officers made 685,724 stops.

But Zimroth has repeatedly raised concerns about officers failing to file official paperwork documenting the stops, which allow officers to detain and question people who they reasonably suspect are involved in criminal activity.

In a recent report, the monitor said that 30% of stops conducted in 2019 were not reported by officers. Those who did fill out department paperwork failed to articulate a sufficient legal reason for 21% of the 1,237 stops that were audited last year.

During the pilot study, Zimroth found that the number of stops reported by officers wearing cameras rose 38.8%.

The justifications given by officers who reported stops while wearing cameras were more likely to be judged as unlawful compared with those given by officers who did not use the devices. The trend was also true for stops that led to subsequent police actions like frisks, searches and arrests.

The New York study involved more than 1,200 uniformed and plainclothes officers working the 3 pm to midnight shift in 40 precincts. The precincts were paired based on their similar levels of enforcement activity, civilian complaints and demographics of officers and neighbourhoods. One precinct in each pair was part of the treatment group assigned to wear body cameras, while the other precinct was part of the control group that did not use the devices.

The study found that officers wearing body cameras drew 21% fewer complaints than officers who did not wear them, suggesting that both parties — officer and civilian — were mindful of their behaviour when the devices were present.

But the devices had no significant effect on arrests, officers’ use of force, reporting of crimes and domestic disputes, or public attitudes toward the police, according to the monitor’s report.

“At the very least,” Zimroth said, the presence of body cameras helps to satisfy the public’s expectation to see video of controversial encounters and judge for themselves. The devices also signal that mechanisms exist to hold officers responsible for misconduct, and their use can help improve public attitudes about the legitimacy of police actions, he said.

“Given the demonstrated benefits and absence of harmful outcomes, this study supports not only the use of body-worn cameras by the NYPD, but their use by other departments as well,” he concluded.

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