Last year the St. Louis Police Department began using cameras mounted in patrol cars to record officers’encounters with suspects and other aspects of their on-the-job behavior. Such dash cameras, which have been used in this country for 15 years or so, can help cops as well as the people they arrest by backing up details of police reports, providing evidence of crimes such as driving while intoxicated, and disproving false complaints of misconduct. But some cops see only the downside. Citing union grievances, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that “city police officers believe in-car cameras are being used against them, and they are trying to find ways to avoid driving cars equipped with them.” About half the city’s police cars have cameras so far. Capt. Mary Edwards-Fears responded to the problem posed by camera-shy cops in an April 13 memo to supervisors:
We are missing critical evidence for our cases when we allow [officers] to avoid using vehicles with cameras in them, for fear of being caught in a compromising position. Your job as managers in the business is to assist your officers in following the rules and regulations, not assisting them in circumventing them.
The Post-Dispatch describes a few incidents that have contributed to officers’ leeriness of dash cams:
Two probationary officers [were] investigated after a woman said they planted guns and drugs on her 16-year-old son. Video exonerated them of that claim but revealed that one struck the handcuffed teen, which led to the firing of both….
In-car cameras caught Officer Jason Stockley brandishing a personally owned rifle at a drug suspect, who was later shot and killed by police Dec. 20. The department does not allow officers to carry personally owned rifles and still is investigating the matter internally.
Officer David Wilson was seen striking a handcuffed teenage suspect in January. He was criminally charged with assault in April, and an internal investigation is under way.
What’s the world coming to when cops can no longer punch handcuffed prisoners or violate firearm rules with impunity? The local police union wants restrictions on supervisors’ authority to review camera footage, so officers will be have a clearer sense of when they’re being watched. Police Chief Dan Isom replies that “I’m not going to draft a policy for those who violate our policy,” saying the cameras help “make sure people are following the protocol of the police department.” That seems about right to me, although I might have put it this way: If cops are not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear.
More on cops and cameras here.