October 10, 2017 10:12:08 AM
It has been three years since the Columbus Police Department first began equipping its officers with body cameras. At the time, the cameras were widely praised as a tool that would hold both citizens and police officers accountable for their actions, removing much of the "he said, she said" nature of police/resident interactions.
In recent weeks, we have seen two examples of how the footage captured from those videos has been used to make the case for disciplinary action for two CPD officers. In September, footage from a late-August traffic stop showed an ugly, abusive encounter between CPD officer Keith Dowd and Joshua Hibbler, who was pulled over, but not cited, for speeding. Dowd's abusive, potentially dangerous, conduct led to his resignation following public outcry after the body camera footage was released to the public. There is little doubt that without that footage, Dowd would likely have remained on the beat for the lack of conclusive evidence of his inappropriate conduct.
Later in September, body camera video showed CPD officer Toni Howard pointing a Taser at a Lowndes County Adult Detention Center inmate while he was being evaluated at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. The inmate's hands were cuffed behind his back and his feet were shackled. Howard's action came after the inmate had harassed and verbally abused the officer. An edited version of that video has been released, but the city has yet to act on an discipline for Howard.
Throughout the nation, body camera video has emerged to verify or dispute officer and citizen versions on encounters.
It is generally believed that the presence of those cameras is having an overall positive impact on police/citizen interactions.
The camera doesn't like, obviously.
But to assume that body camera footage tells the entire story of all confrontations can be faulty in some cases. That footage captures incidents from a narrow perspective - only where the camera is trained. In some cases, there may be factors not captured by the camera that tells the more complete story.
It is also worth noting that public perception of body camera footage is influenced by other non-related incidents.
In May 2016, University of Wyoming researchers released a study that illustrated this point.
Two studies were conducted with participants from across the United States watching, hearing and reading the transcript of an actual police shooting event. The data for Study 1 were collected prior to media coverage of a widely publicized police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Results indicated that participants who could hear or see the event were significantly more likely to perceive the shooting was justified than they were when they read a transcript of the encounter. Shortly after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the same study was replicated showing quite different results. Although dissatisfaction with the shooting was seen in all forms of presentation, video evidence produced the highest citizen perceptions of an unjustified shooting and audio evidence produced the least.
The effectiveness of any tool is influenced by how it is used.
Here, too, we have a local example to draw from. More than a year after the CPD began using body cameras, the officer-involved shooting death of Ricky Ball showed that a camera is only effective when used. Then-CPD officer Canyon Boykin failed to turn on his camera during an incident in which Boykin shot and killed Ball. Boykin awaits trial on a manslaughter charge.
While it is impossible to know what the body camera footage would have shown - either to support the manslaughter charge or refute it - there can be no doubt that that footage would have been of some use.
Since then, the city has stiffened its punishment for failure to employ body cameras.
Finally, there is the question of what video is released to the public. That varies across the country. What is true everywhere is that the police department is the gate-keeper for what video is released to the public.
It's the "tree falling in a forest" effect.
Overall, we still believe that the use of body cameras promotes public safety, both for citizens and law enforcement alike.
But we also recognize that this still relatively new tool needs to be refined and improved.
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4. Editorial cartoon for 3-19-18 NATIONAL COLUMNS