The Baltimore Police Department’s body camera program was praised by a national civil rights coalition an a report released Tuesday but also criticized for policies that allow officers to review footage before writing reports in some instances.
Baltimore was a “bright spot” compared to half of the departments surveyed that had no score change from 2016, according to Shakira Cook, senior council for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Cook highlighted Baltimore’s publicly-available body camera policy and overall improvement on four of the eight key principals the coalition identifies to safeguard rights, including limiting officer discretion on when to record and personal privacy concerns.
In the 2016 report, Baltimore’s policy only fully satisfied the principal requiring protection of footage from tampering and misuse. Since then, the department has added details to its policy prohibiting the use of cameras to create a database or pool of mug shots, be used as fillers in photo arrays or be searched with facial recognition software, making it one of only a handful of departments surveyed to specifically address biometric technologies.
“Without the right safeguards, there’s a real risk that these devices can become instruments of injustice,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, a coalition of civil rights organizations. Gupta oversaw the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and the signing of a consent decree in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.
Unrestricted footage review
All 75 departments scored in the report allow officers to review incident footage prior to writing their report in most cases. In Baltimore, officers may review footage from their camera or the camera of another officer involved in an incident “to assist in complete and accurate report writing for routine matters.” The review is not allowed if the officer is involved in a serious use-of-force incident, in-custody death or under criminal investigation, which places Baltimore in the minority of the surveyed departments.
The Leadership Conference advocates for “clean reporting,” which prohibits the review of footage before writing a report under any circumstances, because preserving what the officer believes they saw is part of the investigation.
“Camera footage can be misleading,” Cook said. “If an officer views the footage before writing his or her report, an opportunity will present itself to conform the report to what the footage appears to show.”
In a companion report, social justice and technology nonprofit Upturn contends allowing “unrestricted footage review” is a troubling trend because it can turn the cameras into tools that serve police rather than promoting accountability.
“Without clean reporting, evidence gets distorted,” said Upturn executive director Harlan Yu.
Unrestricted review creates an “illusion of accuracy,” added Yu, because it taints what officers remember and undermines the independent evidentiary value of the written report. The ideal policy would require officers to write their initial report before reviewing footage then file a supplemental report if necessary after seeing the recordings.
Earlier this year, several pieces of Baltimore police body camera footage were flagged after they appeared to show officers manipulating the footage by either planting evidence or reenacting the recovery of evidence.
A public defender identified the first questionable video in July which showed an officer placing a can containing a plastic bag onto a trash-strewn lot, walking back to the street, activating his body camera — which saves 30 seconds of video prior to activation — and walking back to the lot to discover the suspected contraband. Dozens of cases which involved the officers in question were subsequently dropped and already adjudicated cases were reviews.
Two additional incidents of possible manipulation of footage later were identified, one of them self-reported by an officer after the media coverage of the first two.
Yu said body cameras have caught police attempting to misuse them elsewhere as well, including an incident in Los Angeles last week where the officers’ camera saved footage prior to activation showed evidence being planted.
“I think in those cases, body worn camera footage was definitely helpful but at the same time I think the reason why that happened is that officers didn’t really understand how the cameras worked,” he said.
A more savvy officer can still abuse the technology, according to Yu, which makes clean reporting an important way to prevent an officer from changing the narrative about an incident based on what the camera captured.