Also this week, The Washington Post revealed that an officer present at the shooting of Keith Scott, in Charlotte, North Carolina, did not activate his body camera when he should have. The officer only turned it on immediately after another officer at the scene shot Scott. Due to a feature of the camera that saves the 30 seconds of video prior to its activation, this meant that while the shots were captured on camera, the footage had no sound. (Dashboard-camera video released over the weekend seemed to show that Scott, a 43-year-old black man, had his hands by his side when another officer shot him four times and killed him.)
Or consult the case of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager who was shot and killed by a Chicago Police Department officer in late July. The officer’s body camera was also turned off during the shooting.
In case after case, police departments say officers did not have their body cameras activated when it counted. It can seem as though incidents where body-cam footage helped secure an indictment—such as in Marksville, Louisiana, last November, or as in Cincinnati last July—are more rare than the cases where they don’t.
These are breaches of protocol—incidents where events didn’t happen as the law would require. Often, these violations are never significantly punished. This is the second major threat to body-camera accountability: If there’s not significant discipline for officers who fail to follow local policies—as the officers failed in D.C., Chicago, and Charlotte—then it doesn’t matter what’s in the policy.
“Even if a department like Chicago has a great, green-check-mark policy, there are still lapses by officers,” said Harlan Yu, a technologist at Upturn, a civil-rights consulting firm. “In the Paul O’Neal shooting, cameras were on before, they appear to be on after, but then—oh well!—something happened” during the shooting itself.
“We see this in Chicago over and over in other areas—there are all sorts of stories about Chicago cops purposefully deactivating their dash cams, even though they’re required to use them and the city pays for them. But who is disciplining officers when they fail to follow the policies? If taxpayers are spending money on these cameras, they sure as hell better be working when a shooting happens,” he added.
The third threat is that many states have introduced or passed new laws that restrict public access to footage while preserving police access.
In October, North Carolina will enforce a new law that only allows courts, and not politicians, to release any body-camera footage. The law asks state judges to weigh various factors before releasing a video, including whether it is “necessary to advance a compelling public interest” and whether it would “create a serious threat to the fair, impartial, and orderly administration of justice.”