Push For Increased Police Body Camera Use A Double-Edged Sword
The May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced police agencies across the country to take up immediate reforms that include, among other things, mandating all officers turn on body-worn cameras during protests.
Cities in Virginia, Vermont, Colorado and Washington have made announcements this week to do just that. But here in Arizona, where the manufacturer of most police-worn body cameras is based, the potential mandate is a little more complicated for some.
Klee Benally is an advocate for indigenous sacred sites and a self-described anarchist. That means, in part, he spends a lot of his time demonstrating, he would say peacefully. But Flagstaff police didn’t agree at an event a couple of years ago.
“In 2018, the same day that Flagstaff formally announced their Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, which has been contentious for years, myself and 40 people rallied in downtown Flagstaff,” Benally said.
They were rallying against Indigenous Peoples Day, arguing that there could be no honor of indigenous peoples without honor of sacred sites, namely the San Francisco Peaks, an area near Arizona’s Snowbowl in Flagstaff that receives water from the U.S. Forest Service in order to make snow.
The Navajo and other tribes have sued the Forest Service, unsuccessfully, to lay claim to these water rights as belonging to the San Francisco Peaks —a place Benally says is one of the four most sacred places on Earth to Navajos.
But all of that went sideways when Benally and about 10 others were arrested for demonstrating — three weeks after the event. The evidence used against the protesters was police-worn body camera footage.
“They used body camera footage explicitly to surveil and identify people, so during the demonstration, they were instructing officers — the Flagstaff police department was instructing officers to get people’s faces. They were following people. When the demonstration was finished, they were following people to their vehicles, or following people to their homes to make sure they got documentation of their faces and, sort of, tried to identify them,” Benally said.
Charges were then filed against about a dozen people for obstructing the public thoroughfare and the case was sent to court. Benally says the investigation not only involved camera footage but also a deep dive into social media postings of the protesters. He says police actions against his group are not about public safety but are politically motivated.
“We are fighting on the grounds that this is an act of state repression. Basically, that they are trying to chill dissent, undermine dissent and criminalize it. And that’s not acceptable,” said Benally.
Mathew Sandoval is a professor at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. He is also an activist and teaches about activism and militarization. He’s familiar with Benally’s case.
“The police, especially since the Obama administration, really going back to the Occupy movement of 2011, are also scouring the internet for posts and videos. I mean, they are going through this. I mean this is part of the surveillance state that was built under the Obama administration. (It) has been used to target activism and then find videos of quote, unquote illicit activity or property destruction and then use that to charge people,” said Sandoval.
He said charges can come days and weeks after a protest. His main concern is about the proliferation of video footage by police and protesters.
“It cuts both ways with recording what is happening in the street. Sometimes it’s good because you are able to capture the police which can then later be used in evidence of police hearings but it’s also a weapon for the state to use against activists so it cuts both ways," Sandoval said.
"Sometimes it’s good because you are able to capture the police which can then later be used in evidence of police hearings but it’s also a weapon for the state to use against activists so it cuts both ways."
— Mathew Sandoval, ASU professor
Rick Smith leads the nation’s largest seller of this so-called weapon. He is the CEO Axon, the Valley-based company that supplies the vast majority of law enforcement agencies across the country with its body cameras, including the police force in Flagstaff. He says police abuses of video are a risk — but one worth taking — in order to capture more abuses of police action.
"I generally think the more video you’ve got, whether it’s from the police or from the public, the more people are going to behave a little better perhaps be held a little more accountable and ultimately that may mean that people may need to be prosecuted. And that may mean bad cops being thrown off the force — and we’re seeing that with increasing frequency than I’ve ever seen - and it includes bad actors that are damaging other people and property as well," said Smith.
Smith said if anything, he’d like to see even more footage recorded. He says he agrees with the criticism he hears that officers are not turning on the body cameras they are wearing to record law enforcement interactions with the public. He says some of that is about law enforcement. He also says some of that is about activists.
"City councils, at the request of policy groups like the ACLU, specifically mandating police not record protesters to protect the privacy rights of the protesters. Now this is a great example of well-intentioned policy, but we’re now seeing the downside where people are saying ‘wait a minute, why are police not recording what they’re doing when they’re interacting with protesters?’, and it’s specifically because of these policies that were put in place to protect protester privacy and now we’re seeing the flip side which means they also may not be recording incidents of police use of force," said Smith.
Kevin Robinson is retired from the Phoenix police force and now teaches at Arizona State University. He says body camera footage is a non-negotiable now.
“There’s no other witness outside of the police officer and usually the other individual is dead. Now with all of these videos, these videos are telling a different story. And so often, the story that has been given by law enforcement doesn’t hold up to what is actually occurring,” he said.
Robinson said for years, the way evidence has been presented by police is “us versus them” in many cases, especially those involving African Americans. Mr. Robinson referred to the initial police report filed on the killing of George Floyd by police. In it, officers reported that Mr. Floyd resisted arrest and was combative. But video recorded by bystanders showed otherwise.
"Then the video comes out and that’s not true. You see it. And he’s handcuffed. And then everything goes from there," he said. "I think it’s the best thing to happen to law enforcement is the body-worn camera because if you’re doing your job, if you’re doing things the way you’re supposed to, it’s going to be recorded and it will back up your story," he said.
He said the body camera gives everyone an opportunity to see what is going on with policing day-in and day-out — sometimes positive, sometimes not.
Benally says with regard to demonstrators and activists and law enforcement interactions, he is very concerned about whose story is being told with recorded police body camera footage.
"When you look at this case they explicitly use them and explicitly in the body camera footage they state that was the intended purposes — to document, to surveil, to identify, and then they used that footage along with social media monitoring to press charges," Benally said.
The next hearing in Benally’s case is at the end of June.