Why Did the New Body Cameras for Denver Police Fail to Record 74% of Reported Incidents of Excessive Force?

The City of Denver's Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) recently released its annual report for 2014. The Puppycide Database Project has reviewed the report and made it available on our website, along with OIM reports for the last 10 years and disciplinary statistics for the Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff Department. The files are available on our datasets page.

The 2014 report released a bomb-shell when the Independent Monitor confirmed that Denver police and deputies have been routinely disabling their body-worn cameras, destroying vital evidence relied on by courts and investigators to settle allegations of malfeseance and excessive force.

The body cameras were implemented through a pilot program introduced in June of 2014. Denver Police in District 6, which encompasses most of Downtown Denver, were outfitted with the new cameras. Data collected from this program was to influence policy recommendations for a city-wide roll-out of the new technology. A total of 102 police officers were provided with the cameras.

TASER International Axon Flex Body Camera as used by Denver Police Department

The decision to implement the body cameras comes at a time of national unrest sparked by police violence toward unarmed citizens as well as pets. Civil and animal rights activists have continually protested that excessive force episodes, even those ending in death, have gone not just unpunished, but unindicted, uninvestigated and even uncounted (readers are likely already familiar with the events that have occurred in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown and New York City after police killed Eric Garner). As a result, Federal law enforcement officials at the highest levels of power have publicly supported the introduction of body cameras to help deflate the growing public tensions between police and the populace that they have sworn to protect. President Obama himself announced a $75 million appropriation to purchase body cameras and distribute them to municipal and state police officers.

The Denver program ended in December of 2014, resulting in a six month period of use that the OIM used to determine their findings. Here are the key findings of the OIM's report:

  • During the six month pilot program, there were 80 documented incidents of excessive force in Disrict 6. Of those, in only 21 (26%) cases was an officer using a body camera that was correctly activated and recording.

  • In the small number of excessive force cases where police involved had followed their orders and correctly worn an activated body camera, the subsequent recordings resulted inpolice being exonerated and claims of excessive force being confirmed.

  • District 6 supervisors and police reported to be "working off-duty" were not provided cameras. These two groups accounted for 35 of the 80 (43.75%) excessive force incidents.

  • 24 of the 80 (30%) excessive force incidents involved on-duty patrol officers who deactivated their cameras or "weren't used in a way that produced usable and complete footage".

  • The cameras themselves are called "Axon Flex" and were purchased from TASER International. These cameras do not record continuously - rather they provide the officer wearing the camera the choice whether to record or not by pressing a large button.

  • Storage of the video surveillance tapes was outsourced to the company Evidence.Com.

TASER International Axon Flex Body Camera Button

The cameras could be worn in a number of ways, but the Denver Police Department instructed police to only wear the cameras on their lapels and certain sunglasses.

The Office of the Independent Monitor described the Denver Police Department Policy for when the camera should be activated or deactivated as follows ("BWC" stands for Body Worn Camera):

"According to the BWC Policy, all officers were required to activate their BWCs prior to any officer-initiated field contacts involving potential violations of the law, including but not limited to pedestrian stops, traffic stops, and vehicle contacts. Similarly, officers were required to activate their BWCs for a broad range of calls for service, including all calls involving arrests or citations, and all calls that became 'adversarial'. The BWC Policy recognized that there would be situations, especially non-dispatched events, where it would not be possible to immediately activate a BWC out of concerns for safety. A BWC was supposed to stay on until the event being recorded 'stabilized' or concluded, or a victim or supervisor advised the officer to deactivate the BWC.

The BWC Policy dictated that BWCs were not to be activated in any place in which there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a restroom or a hospital emergency room, unless there was a reasonable law enforcement purpose, in which case officers were instructed to use caution to record only those people directly involved in the investigation. When preparing reports, officers could view footage from their own BWCs on a separate video player, not directly from the BWC. They were not authorized to show BWC video to citizens, and the technology did not allow officers to delete footage. Supervisors were not permitted to review officers’ BWC footage other than for an investigation (such as a use of force investigation), or if an officer was on a performance improvement plan, or for other reasons (to be approved by the officer’s commander or above). At the end of each shift, officers placed their the BWCs into an Evidence Transfer Manager, a docking station that charged the BWCs and uploaded footage to Evidence.com, an online, cloud-based digital media repository."

The data in the Independent Monitor's assessment was voluntarily provided by the Denver Police Department as part of a joint request between the Office of the Independent Monitor and the Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board (Note that the Citizen Oversight Board produces their own reports separate from the OIM, which are available on their website as well as the Puppycide Database Project Datasets Page. They received a series of Supervisor Cover Reports as well as Internal Affairs violent incident and complaint data.

Regardless of whether the use of force incidents examined are determined to be legal and ethical, it is clear that in the over-whelming majority of such incidents result in the serious injury of a citizen, as illustrated quite succinctly by the graph provided below:

Denver Police Department Excessive Force Complaints 2014 Q3 and 2014 Q4

The OIM's report is striking only for its frankness, but its results should be unsurprising. The District 6 body camera trial program demonstrates that body cameras that provide police with the option to stop recording will opt to stop recording in instances where video evidence is critical. The report also calls into question why supervisors & so-called "working off-duty" officers were not provided with such cameras, as they are responsible for nearly half of the force complaints that arose.

Finally, the report demonstrates that despite the role these cameras played in exonerating police from fictitious excessive force complaints, police have yet to see the use of such cameras as being in their own self-interest. Such a judgement remains a rational choice on the part of police - continued investigations on the part of Puppycide Database Project volunteers continue to demonstrate that police are almost never held criminally or even civilly culpable for aggregious acts of violence resulting in death, whether exonerating evidence exists or not. For cops operating in an environment where only the most flagrantly guilty officers are punished and excessive force remains a fundamental part of police culture, video evidence can only serve to hurt rather than help.