If you spend any time following police accountability pages on Facebook, you’ve probably come across the viral meme about how use of force incidents dropped 60 percent within the Rialto Police Department after they issued body-mounted cameras to their officers.
The meme is based on a study conducted by Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar as part of his master’s dissertation at Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology – in collaboration with Taser, Inc, the company that sells the cameras – which has been highlighted in numerous articles as proof that body-mounted cameras not only lead to a reduction in use of force incidents, but also in a reduction in citizen complaints against police.
The meme is rarely challenged because logic tells us humans would be on their best behavior knowing they are being video recorded.
However, that logic falls apart if we take a look at the Albuquerque Police Department which introduced body-mounted cameras in 2010 – one of the first departments in the country to do so – only to continue to see an unsettling number of violent incidents against citizens.
They killed so many citizens since introducing the cameras that the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation in late 2012, citing an unusually high number of incidents resulting in “excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.”
But even the USDOJ investigation, launched around the time the Rialto Police Department issued cameras to its officers, did nothing to curb the aggressiveness because cops continued killing citizens, not in the least bit swayed by the pending investigation.
Just last week, they killed another man, a homeless man who was camping illegally in the Albuquerque foothills in an incident caught on an officer’s helmet cam after they claimed he pulled out a knife, although it is obvious he was in no position to use it on the officers.
While Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden justified the shooting, citing the suspect’s long criminal history without acknowledging his long mental health problems, he did not say much about the officer who pulled the trigger, Keith Sandy, who had been fired from the New Mexico State Police for fraud in 2007.
And last month, Albuquerque police finally released footage from a body-mounted camera from an officer-involved shooting that contradicted everything they said in the original criminal complaint filed in court last October.
At first, they claimed they shot a man who had shot at them first, citing unnamed witnesses in a sworn criminal complaint filed in court.
But when the Albuquerque Journal spoke to a witness, one who also happened to be a victim in the crime preceding the shooting, they learned the suspect never fired at the officer.
In fact, the suspect, who was walking away from the officer, tossed his gun into the air after the officer opened fire, which did nothing to stop the officer from continuing to fire at the suspect.
This witness, of course, was never mentioned in the criminal complaint alongside the other imaginary witnesses.
There was also a photographer who was chased away while trying to take photos during the aftermath of the shooting, which you can hear in the video below threatening to take his camera as “evidence.”
It was also officer Brian Pitzer’s third shooting during his six year career with the Albuquerque Police Department. However, he must be a horrible shot because none resulted in fatalities, including the recent one when he shot at suspect Joaquin Ortega eight times at close proximity, only to strike him once in the shoulder.
So obviously, body-mounted cameras are not the magic bullet to curb police violence as the Rialto study indicates.
But at least they help document and expose police violence – when officers decide to keep the cameras turned on, that is. And if and when the departments make the footage available to the public.
In 2011, Albuquerque police killed a mentally ill man while they were out of uniform and not wearing the cameras. In 2012, they shot another man, seriously wounding him, with the officer claiming the camera fell off him as he stepped out of the car.
Also in 2012, they engaged in a 15-hour standoff with a man, capturing most of it on video, except for the part where the man ended up dead with a bullet to his head.
At first, Albuquerque police claimed Santiago Chavez killed himself, but then it was later revealed, he died following a shootout with police, although they still insisted he killed himself.
But there was no video from the moment police stormed the home because the cameras had “malfunctioned” after the long standoff, claimed Chief Ray Schultz.
Albuquerque police, which has gone through three police chiefs since introducing the cameras in 2010, have long had problems controlling their aggression against citizens, according to longtime PINAC reader and investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola, who spent years working for KOB in New Mexico before moving to 9News in Denver. He was, in fact, the first journalist to report about the introduction of cameras in Albuquerque.
This is what he had to say when I asked him for his insight:
I’ve covered too many officer involved shootings in Albuquerque that sadly ended with the death of someone living with mental illness.
By aggressively responding to a situation in full SWAT and riot gear, I believe police officers end up further escalating events that may need the delicate touch of trained officers who know the signs of mental illness.
A shoot first and ask questions later attitude has become a systematic problem within APD.
Officers fiercely defend this policy by dismissing citizen concerns without merit “because you don’t know what it’s like to be a cop.”
This has become a point of contention between the citizenry of Albuquerque and the officers who see themselves as uniformed martyrs with guns.
How dare we question police because “they put their lives on the line for us everyday?”
Once a man at a death scene asked me who the biggest, most armed gang is in Albuquerque.
I named various well known street gangs as he shook his head in disappointment.
Can you guess his answer?
In contrast, the Rialto Police Department seems to prioritize educating its officers, which would probably give them a better understanding in how to handle mentally ill suspects, emphasizing education on its website for potential job applicants:
What kinds of education & experience should I consider before applying to become a police officer with the City of Rialto?
- Education: Most of the progressive agencies in California place a high value on a college education. An AA is a good start; but you should always consider higher education. The choice of a major is not nearly as important as the college experience itself.
Cops in California are also required to completed 888 hours in the academy before becoming certified while cops in New Mexico are required to complete 650 hours (while cosmetology students in New Mexico are required to complete 1,600 hours as one newspaper pointed out).
Granted, the 888 hours California cops must go through did not prevent the countless examples of abuse that we’ve seen from that state, including the Kelly Thomas incident, the Oscar Grant shooting and the way officers fired at random citizens because they happened to be driving a truck similar to the one driven by cop killer Chris Dorner.
This is where leadership plays a strong role.
Farrar, who took over as Rialto chief in January 2012, replaced Mark Kling, who left to become a university professor. Farrar was already pursuing a masters in criminology from Cambridge in England, which makes one wonder if he was even around to lead the department.
But his influence was nevertheless present because his officers responded positively to the study, which received much fanfare when launched, and probably had something to do with the reduction of use of force incidents because officers knew their videos were being scrutinized for the study.
But it still is a reflection of Farrar’s leadership if the officers were inspired to make him look good in the study, which ended up winning him an award in 2013.
The casual setting takes away those barriers that routinely define interactions between law enforcement and community members, Farrar said. For instance — that traffic stop where you ran a red light.
“It’s a relaxed, informal one-on-one atmosphere,” he said. “And when you get that, it really increases the trust in police officers, which is really the foundation for building partnerships in your communities, and we happen to have that.
In addition to residents talking about what’s going on in their neighborhoods, the venue has given the Police Department a way to solicit help and get feedback.
“A lot of times we’re out there looking for resources and volunteers, and you’ll be surprised when you talk to folks what they can help you with,” Farrar said.
But Farrar made it his mission to turn things around when he took the helm in 2012 and it obviously wasn’t just the usual rhetoric we hear from incoming chiefs.
According to journalist Tommy Purvis, a PINAC reader who lives in the Inland Empire and has covered police issues extensively, including writing about Cato’s findings:
I was super impressed with my last interaction with Rialto PD last January. I was in the captains office interviewing IA investigators within 15 mins. I was told the transparency was the chiefs media relations effort.
So maybe we can give credit to Farrar for his study that is being used by countless departments to determine whether or not to introduce body-mounted cameras, even if it was done in collaboration with Taser (as if that would be a surprise).
But we must also pay close attention to what the U.S. Department of Justice will say when it concludes its investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department because that is an example of a police agency that has lost all credibility and respect within its community, despite its early introduction of the body-mounted cameras.
When it comes down to it, we, as citizens, need to learn our state’s public records law to know how to obtain this footage if the need arises. Especially now that more and more police departments are introducing these cameras.
As it is now, police departments are still grappling with policies on these cameras, including how to deal with situations where a citizen may have an expectation of privacy, such as a domestic abuse call. And not surprisingly, most police unions have spoken out against these cameras, claiming they will be an invasion of privacy.
And after a judge ordered the NYPD to begin issuing these cameras to officers who patrol areas where the controversial stop-and-frisk policy has violated the Constitutional rights of citizens, both the union and the top brass objected to the ruling, which has now been appealed to a higher court.
Even residents in those areas were opposed to officers wearing cameras, thinking the footage would be used against them, which, of course, is possible and even further reason why they should record these encounters with their own devices.
However, the LAPD plans to introduce these cameras and has the full-backing of its union, which believes the cameras will “protect police officers from frivolous and unwarranted complaints.”
In 2012, PINAC reader Jake Crawford and another reporter revealed that Oakland police officers were turning off their body-mounted cameras prior before becoming aggressive with protesters, a revelation that resulted in disciplinary action against the officers.
In fact, Crawford of Cop Watch is strongly opposed to the introduction of body-mounted cameras because there is no guarantee they will serve the public.
Across the country, body cameras are being purchased by police departments in the name of transparency. According to a widely publicized study, Rialto, California, boasted an 88% drop in complaints in the first year after the cameras were introduced there, along with a 60% drop in police use of force. Rialto is a small city with only 66 cops, and its Police Chief, Tony Farrar, collaborated with Taser International, Inc., in the study. The Taser corporation has gained record profits by marketing body cameras to hundreds of cities, along with a cloud-based backup and search service called Evidence.com, which was used to collect the data for the Rialto study that led to many of these sales.
Even the study’s authors acknowledged that their methodology was flawed, because no evidence was collected from the members of the public who were also being videotaped by the wearable cameras to see how that influenced their behavior in relation to the police and their willingness to make complaints. Taser’s involvement should be a red flag to anyone who thinks these cameras are an easy tech fix for police accountability, as should the public’s inability to access the body cam video recordings.
But it seems inevitable that the cameras will eventually be implemented in every law enforcement agency in the country, but we must look beyond the Rialto study to ensure they serve its true purpose of promoting transparency rather than induce intimidation against citizens.
Perhaps the Rialto study should be accompanied by an ACLU analysis that is calling for more studies as well as implementation of policies that ensure the cameras protect the citizens as well as the officers.
For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks.