by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, May 2015) At the April 18th meeting of the Greater Cleveland Civil and Human Rights Coalition, a panel of seven people with a variety of different areas of expertise weighed in on the question of whether or not Body-Worn Cameras will increase police accountability.
Shakyra Diaz, a Policy Manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio urged citizens to involve themselves in how the city of Cleveland is developing its policy on the use of police-worn body cameras. She criticized the roll out of the body cameras in the Fourth and Second Districts without issues surrounding the cameras being studied more and without protocols in place for citizens to view the video footage. “If you can’t get the footage, the city has no business putting cameras on the street.”
Diaz also noted that the latest version of the Police Department’s policy for the use of the body-worn cameras was vague in terms of how to discipline police for not following the policy.
Panelist Alice Ragland, an organizer with the Ohio Students Association and a member of Puncture the Silence, talked about messages prevalent in our society, which create an “implicit bias”. She noted that when a biased person has a gun, that makes the situation more dangerous. She said the criminal justice system doesn’t recognize “implicit bias,” instead you must prove an officer had intentionally racist motives, or they are off the hook for their actions. Ragland cited the Treyvon Martin case in Florida saying society sees African Americans as threatening. She didn’t think that police cameras would change that perception. Ragland, said while she believed the images captured by police cameras would be “better than nothing,” the real changes have to come in the overall society.
Panelist Shahid Buttar, Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said the body cameras could be “worse than nothing.” He said, “We don’t have any indication that juries will respond the way we want” to body camera evidence.” He also said that with police officers riding around with cameras recording every even nominal criminal act, the cameras may result in even more mass incarceration in the United States which already has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Ed Little, a member of the panel who is a consultant on criminal justice and juvenile justice policy and a member of the Collaborative for a Fair, Safe and Just Cleveland, said, “body cameras raise more questions than answers.” He asked the audience to take a critical look at situations where police violence had been caught on video. He mentioned the cases of Rodney King, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott. “We must all watch our government. It is critically important to keep our eye on the case of Walter Scott.” He noted that the video shot Walter Scott being shot in the back by a police officer in South Carolina was taken from the perspective of a bystander. He wondered if a body worn camera would have captured the officer planting a taser next to the body. Little wondered how data from body cameras would fare before a grand jury. He speculated that grand jury members, like in some recent cases, “would try to figure out how to discredit what we saw.”
Dr. Ronnie Dunn of the Levin College of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University said the policy for supervisor random review of video footage “doesn’t say how it will take place.”
Dunn, who is working with Cleveland City Council to develop a bias free policing ordinance, called for a new legislation to govern and aid with the Civilian Review Process involving police actions. Dunn recommended Department of Justice and Ohio State Auditor monitoring of police policies and procedures take a long view. He urged looking at patterns, trends, and training. He urged data collection on bias and racial profiling. He said the City of Cleveland should prohibit the targeting by police of individuals based on social indicators such as race, sexual orientation, religion etc. He put forward Cincinnati as an example of a city that collects data to document possible police profiling. He urged collecting of such data on a statewide basis. Dr. Dunn also called for more transparency in the grand jury process – he said it is too secretive now.
Panelist Matt Zone, a Cleveland City Council member and Chair of City Council’s Safety Committee, talked about the listening sessions the Safety Committee sponsored following the Department of Justice report issued on the Cleveland Police Department. Zone said Council listened to the “frustration in the community” and he said that the summary of the four listening sessions which he estimated attracted over 1,000 participants resulted in seven areas of concern which he believes can be categories for City Council to address in terms of legislation to reform the police department.
According to Zone, seven major concerns brought to City Council’s attention were: lack of community policing, fear of police, lack of police training and equipment, lack of trust in department leadership to reform and correct problems, abuse of police power, effectiveness of the Civilian Police Review Board, and disparity between police and citizens in how their cases are handled in the justice system. City Council Safety Committee hearings are focused on all seven topics, said Zone.
Zone said the Safety Committee would also hold hearings on the use of technology by Cleveland Police and protocol for the use of cameras. He said the real test would be to see if the video captured by body worn cameras could lead to more police accountability. Zone promised to keep the Greater Cleveland Civil and Human Rights Coalition informed as to when the Safety Committee would hold hearings on police body cameras.
Will Tarter, a panel member and also a community representative on the Wearable Camera Policy Committee for the City of Cleveland Division of Police, called the City of Cleveland Policy governing the use of police-worn body cameras “a living breathing document.” He said the policy was still in review and still changing. He said groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocacy groups were weighing in on when the cameras should be used or turned off. He said the use of police worn body cameras would be a “win-win only if deployed within a framework which protects civil liberties and civil rights while having transparency.”
Panelist Ed Little related the city’s obstructionist role when people asked for public records — in written form or video. He said while law enforcement has the opportunity to see the video footage from the police body-worn cameras, the public was blocked from the same type of access by obstructions placed in their way by the public records request process. He noted that the city policies to date on cameras didn’t deal with discipline of police officers. He said this is an area where “the rubber hits the road.” He noted despite being captured on video at Cudell Recreation Center the officers involved in the death of 12-year old Tamir Rice were still on the police force.
Shahid Buttar urged those present to work together to shape the local law. He called for more transparency and said the city’s policy to not allow a robust right of access by the public to video from the police cameras is a negative policy. Panelists and audience members called for accountability for state violence, tools to restore civil rights, and work toward building a broad based community partnership to assure community input into legislation related to police reform.
Those in attendance raised a number of issues related to transparency and monitoring of police and city government. Foremost was the question of how to gain immediate unfettered access to public records. Shakyra Diaz urged those making public record requests to document their efforts and how long it takes to obtain a document. She noted the right to the public records saying, “We are our government.”
However, getting public records when needed was not the experience of those present when requesting records from the city of Cleveland. Even updated police policies on body-worn cameras requested from the city were not given to meeting organizers prior to the meeting. It turned out that Councilman Matt Zone was able to obtain a more updated copy that the Greater Cleveland Civil and Human Rights Committee, which was relying on a dated February 2nd document for the panel discussion.
Several people called for public records to be made available online or immediately upon request at a public office. Diaz said the police policies and procedures involving use of body-worn cameras should be up on the city’s website. A number of people stressed the importance of the public knowing about their ability to request that the cameras be turned off and requirements that the cameras be turned off due to certain privacy concerns.
A number of activists and journalists attending the meeting noted that public record requests were routinely referred to the City of Cleveland Law Department where they were denied or stalled. Those present asked Councilman Matt Zone and his Safety Committee to work on legislation that would make the public records request process more fair to the public. Councilman Zone promised, “I’m going to look into it.”
Several people noted the importance of cell phone cameras and citizen videos in creating awareness of misbehavior and criminal acts by law enforcement personnel. A member of Cop Block held up a cell phone and said, “Here is your body camera, use it.”
A videographer recording the meeting for the Greater Cleveland Civil and Human Rights Coalition said he records on video a lot of public demonstrations and told of the many times he has been intimidated by law enforcement while trying to record such events. He noted he has had cameras broken and other violations of his first amendment rights while trying to record events. He noted judges that banned cameras from simple judicial hearings and said, “If the government has the right to tape us, we have the right to tape them.”
Shahid Buttar said while the courts can be used to address the violation of first amendment rights, you have to have standing to take the case to court— which means the injury has already taken place. He said if the City Council passed a statutory restriction on police violating the first amendment rights of citizens to record events in public “the city would be standing by you before the fact, rather than after the fact,” he said. Buttar also urged a city policy that would fire police officers for arresting someone for observing or recording police actions.
Panelist Ed Little said an alternative to police cameras is for the public, armed with cell phones to be observing and recording the police.
Genevieve Mitchell, executive director of the Black Women’s Center and a member of the Carl Stokes Brigade, complained about the generous contract that the city of Cleveland entered into with Taser Corporation for the body-worn cameras. She said the money could be put to a better use by being spent on education, jobs, hospital medical care, and housing. She called for a public policy shift to bring resources to meet the needs of people rather than corporations.
Councilman Matt Zone responded that he didn’t think there was a way the city could get out of the contract it had signed with Taser International for the cameras. He asked Buttar, an attorney, for his advise. Buttar said proving fraud would be one way to invalidate the contract. He said the authors of the Rialto California study that Taser Corporation uses to promote its cameras throughout the country said that study was specific to Rialto California and couldn’t be applied to other communities. Buttar said that applying the findings in a manner broader than intended could be determined to be fraudulent. He urged Councilman Zone to consult with the Law Department if the city wanted to get out of the contract.
It was noted while the Justice Department specifically mentioned body worn cameras as an effective law enforcement tool, it also noted that a city where police officers don’t have working computers in their cars needs to prioritize its purchases.