In Colorado, the state legislature and ACLU chapter have pioneered legislation and new technology to expand citizens’ ability to film cops. But will that lead to fewer brutality incidents?
On April 29, when it seemed like the entire country was seething over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in the back of a Baltimore Police Department paddy wagon, a protest in Denver turned tense, and then violent, and police and activists clashed openly in the street.
Jesse Benn was among the protesters on the scene, and as many demonstrators do these days, he was filming the police—an act he says led to him being singled out for arrest and harassment.
“During my arrest,” he told VICE, “I suffered a concussion, a severely macerated lip, a loosened tooth, and multiple abrasions and bruises on my body and face… An officer also tried to step on my camera and just missed, in what was a clear effort to damage it.”
Benn’s pregnant wife Jessica continued filming after her husband’s arrest, attempting to document the chaos from a safe distance. Then she was spotted, she says, and suddenly became a target.
“A cop in a blue uniform quickly approached me and grabbed my phone out of my hand as I filmed without saying a single word to me,” Jessica said. “He simply snatched my phone from my hands and disappeared. He did not tell my why he was taking it, he did not say how I could get it back, and he did not give me his name or badge number.”
She added that she was shoved against a bus by a different officer, who pressed a baton to her throat, and was only released after she pleaded with the officer to not hurt her stomach. “I told the officer that my phone was taken and asked who took it,” she said, “but he would not talk to me.”
Despite multiple attempts to retrieve the phone from the Denver Police Department, Jesse Benn said he and his wife had been stonewalled.
“They essentially acted as if it’s not possible that an officer would take her phone,” Benn said, “and that if they did, it was Jessica’s fault they couldn’t find it because she wasn’t able to get the officer’s name or badge number. Of course, many officers had their badge numbers covered, as they do at most protests.”
The Denver Police Department declined to comment on Jesse and Jessica Benn’s arrest, suggesting it was under investigation. But the couple’s experience highlights the heated nationwide debate over the act of recording the cops. Many activists see it as the only way to hold police officers halfway accountable, while some cops clearly resent that sort of monitoring, judging by the occasional aggressive response to being caught on video.
One thing’s for sure: More people are filming the actions of law enforcement than ever. In Colorado, the ACLU has created an app that allows users to record footage on their phones, and, with a quick touch of a button, send them the resulting files. The app was modeled after the Stop and Frisk Watch app from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), used to monitor the alleged racial bias of NYPD officers, which also has a recording function. The feature proved so popular that ACLU offices in 12 other states have developed their own Mobile Justice apps, set to be released this summer.
But whether these efforts will have a tangible impact is tough to divine.
“I’m a bit skeptical on whether the mass availability of cameras really does change things that much,” says Lonnie Schaible, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Colorado Denver. “It may make us more aware of police behavior in some cases, but I’m not sure it changes the behavior of officers. Police are already aware that they operate in a fishbowl.”
Schaible adds that he’d be interested in a study checking out states with various laws regarding a citizen’s right to film police activity, the idea being to see if areas with more lenient policies result in lower rates of police misbehavior. At the moment, he believes there is a real lack of data on this issue.
There is at least some evidence that body cameras are an effective deterrent in police misbehavior. A study of body cameras worn by police in Rialto, California in 2012 found that in a single year, complaints against officers fell 88 percent, and use of force incidents fell 60 percent.
Still, when Denver implemented a pilot program for body cameras on officers between June and December of last year, the results were underwhelming.
A report from Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor found that in the district where body cameras were worn, use of force incidents increased by 11 percent and decreased by 7 percent in other districts. And the number of complaints actually rose 8 percent, while falling by 6 percent in areas outside the district. It’s unlikely that body cameras were responsible for the rise in violence, but in their singular task of documenting that violence, they were apparently a failure.
Nicholas Mitchell, Denver’s independent police monitor and the author of the report, compared the number of use of force incidents with the number that were recorded on video and found that “relatively few of them had been captured on camera.” Mitchell added that large portions of use of force incidents come from sergeants and off-duty police officers working security who were not given cameras. Of those who did have cameras, only 26 percent of their use of force incidents were recorded, oftenbecause officers apparently did not bother to turn the camera on. (Cities where police officers are required to record at all times have seen better results.)
“One of the interesting things we saw was that there was no requirement for officers to notify citizens that they were being recorded,” Mitchell told VICE. “And from a privacy and civil liberties perspective, we think it’s important that police put citizens on notice that they are being recorded… Also, when both participants in an interaction know that they’re on camera, they both might have some inclination to regulate their own behavior, and be less confrontational.”
Video plays a role, too, in the biggest police-related controversy in Denver at the moment: the death of Jessica Hernandez, a 17-year-old who was shot and killed by police last January. Officers asserted she tried to hit them with a car and claimed self-defense, but Hernandez’s family’s attorney has suggested they fired at the vehicle before it even moved. One nearby witness filmed some of the incident, and the video was given to to media outlets, who then blurred out Hernandez’s body. Activists insist that this editing left out images of police misbehavior; one protester at a small rally on Tuesday told me that “she was manhandled, searched, and suffered a blunt-force contusion to her head after she had been shot. [The media] only showed a few seconds of the video, and we know it’s longer.”
The Hernandez family attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, told VICE that the autopsy did in fact show Hernandez suffered injuries to the head after she was shot, but Lynn Kimbrough, director of communications for the Denver DA’s office, said that the video in question “was of a very short duration, and did not have any substantive value to the investigation.” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey recently announced that there would be no criminal charges brought against the officers.
In March, Colorado passed the “Right to Record” bill, which improved the protections for those who filmed the police; when it goes into effect next year, citizens prevented by cops from lawfully recording them could see $15,000 in damages.
“We had heard multiple stories of people who had been intimidated by peace officers while recording them,” said Colorado State Representative Daneya Esgar, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We wanted to not only make sure people understood [filming police] was within their right, but also make sure police departments were training their officers to know that as well. Taking someone’s piece of equipment, deleting someone’s recording, or stopping someone from recording is an infringement on citizens’ First and Fourth amendment rights.”
And recordings can lead to results. A recent study by the Washington Post found that of the 385 cases of police deaths by shooting in the first five months of 2015, the three that have lead to criminal prosecutions were all captured on film.
Schaible, the criminal justice professor at CU Denver, believes that cameras could have some impact on influencing police behavior, but that problems between police and citizens go far beyond simply documenting them.
“In a lot of these instances, if you talk to the officer that is accused of misconduct, they’re going to stand by what they did as appropriate,” Schaible said. “In a dangerous situation, where they feel threatened, these officers are only human. Even if there’s a camera on, I don’t believe they’re thinking about who is watching, they’re reacting on a primal level, which is determined by culture, physiological factors, a whole host of things.”
So if cameras offer the prospect of hope for reforming police practices in Denver and in the US at large, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the nature of their power to produce accountability.
“In our society, we have this belief that more surveillance is somehow going to make us safer, that more cameras are going to stop bad people from doing bad things,” Schaible said. “But I think ultimately if someone wants to do something bad, and they don’t think there’ll be any consequences for it, [a camera] isn’t going to stop them.”