What are the rules regulating the Richmond Police Department's new body cameras? And how are they actually used by officers? We answer these questions and more in part two of our podcast on body cameras: "Policy versus Practice"
You’re listening to the Radio Free Richmond Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Pyles. This is part two of a three part series exploring the Richmond Police Department’s new body cameras. In part one we looked at the cameras themselves — the hardware, and the history. Now we’re going to explore how they’re used in Part 2 — Use: Policy vs Practice
Sean: The RPD has the hardware — 110 FirstVu cameras, to be exact — but how are they utilized? The Police Department handbook has an explicit policy on how the cameras are supposed to be used, but the practice of using the cameras out in the field is proving a bit different from policy on the books.
Cortez: Mens bathroom..I don’t even know where the men’s bathroom is.
Sean: Officer Cortez and I are responding to a call. There are three men allegedly using drugs in the bathroom at Nichol Park. It’s a time when Cortez would use her body camera.
Cortez: Especially if there’s a possibility of us detaining them.
Sean: There’s another officer with us too. She was also given a body camera and it’s clipped onto the pocket of her shirt throughout this interaction.
Officer: Everybody in here come on out. Keep your hands up. Stand against the wall please.
Guys: Indistinct murmuring
Officer: Put your hands up on the wall.
Officer: There’s no reason the three of you should be in that bathroom together.
Sean: Talking with the guys from the bathroom takes a while. One of them doesn’t have ID, and another — found with a bag full of what looks like drug paraphernalia — may be violating the terms of his probation. About 10 minutes in, Officer Cortez realizes something. Her camera isn’t on.
Cortez: See, I forgot to turn it on. [laughs]. When I handed it to you I turned it off and forgot to turn it back on.
Sean: The men proved to be harmless — but suspects on drugs can often be erratic and unpredictable. This was the perfect time to have the cameras rolling. If police needed footage for a case against one of the men, or if they had to resort to use of force — it should have all been captured on video. Back in the car I ask Cortez about the protocols for using the cameras.
Sean: Is there a handbook you received for protocols around using the cameras?
Cortez: Yep — it’s written in the policy now now, and that’s what we refer to when we need to follow some kind of rule.
Sean: Okay. What does it say?
Cortez: So, as Sergeant Abetkov was saying before, it says you use it at your discretion. So anytime you think you need to turn it on, usually if you think it’s going to be of evidentiary value, or a possibly volatile situation. And so with that I’m turning it on because when you’re contacting people who are supposedly using drugs, anything can happen. They could be tripping out, they could be violent, anything — or they could make false claims against you, as I said, that happens.
Sean: The official policy says something a little different. According to the Richmond Police Department Manual, “Sworn personnel are required to activate the AVR [the camera] at the scene of all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters/activities that occur while on duty. The AVR must also be activated during the course of interaction with the public that becomes adversarial after initial contact.”
Lieutenant Al Walle: I’m a Lieutenant. My name is Al, and the last name is Walle.
Sean: Lieutenant Walle is in charge of training and managing the force’s body cameras. According to him…
Walle: The policy for the most part is you’re going to record all calls for service from beginning to end, and there are certain exceptions on when you should not record, you have basically the discretion not to record if, say, if a crime victim doesn’t want to be recorded, you’d rather have the information than the actual audio. Sex assault victims, things like that. Anytime you are getting confidential information.
Sean: And, is there a policy if the camera just don’t have the camera on in an important incident, if there’s a failure to turn it on when they should have had it on. What happens in that situation?
Walle: No, there’s not really a police if there’s a failure to turn it on. There’s a policy that you shouldn’t record — but it’s a should not a shall. Obviously we want officers to record contact but there will be certain circumstances where they won’t be able to record.
Sean: It’s this last point that makes things a little fuzzy. The officers are supposed to have their cameras on for every call for service, but there are no repercussions if they don’t. As a result of this lenient policy — and as necessitated by the cameras less than stellar battery — officers don’t turn their cameras on for every call. This can creates gaps in accountability. Say something bad happened — an officer gets assaulted during a call and has to resort of use of force, but the cameras aren’t on. It’s going to be much harder to use the cameras for evidentiary purposes. For many, this leniency calls into question the entire purpose of the cameras.
Sean: Now, remember that this call in Nichol park happened in January. Things have changed a bit since then. I recently caught up with Officer Cortez to talk about how the cameras are working and how she and her fellow officers are using them. Apparently there were some bad hardware issues, so the camera company replaced the RPD’s stock with an updated version of the same model. Just a heads up: the car was a bit loud that day.
Cortez: It didn’t have this little protecting thing on it, and one time it actually ripped out when someone was on a chase.
Sean: And how’s the battery life?
Cortez: It seems like it’s better. I haven’t had any problems with it, and I’ve actually used it a couple days in a row.
Sean: So it’s lasting full shifts now?
Cortez: Yeah, I haven’t turned it on for every contact, though, so that may be the difference. Before I was turning it on for every single contact, and now I’m like why am I turning it on right now. It’s stupid. I’m just reserving it for when it seems like things might go sideways.
Sean: The camera’s hardware and software may be upgraded — but their use is still at odds with the policy on the books. To many officers, certain polices are a little flexible, and that’s where the debate over the purpose of the cameras comes into play. If the purpose, according to officers, is to gather footage for evidentiary purposes, there may be little value in recording routine traffic stops. But defined by another purpose — that of holding police officers accountable for their actions — then every moment of every interaction is valuable. Officer Cortez doesn’t see it that way. To her, and to other officers, the cameras are just a tool — a tool for gathering evidence and for protection against false claims from the public.
Cortez: I mean, I don’t want to have it on for every car stop. One, it’s going to run my battery down. Two, it’s unnecessary. There’s no evidentiary value to every single car stop.
Sean: A lot of people want every interaction to be recorded for the sake of surveillance, but for accountability I suppose is the word more., in case something does happen. But then you run into the difficulty of the hardware — the batteries aren’t fully there, and then you run into the issue of not needing all of that information. As you mentioned, recording on the cloud is really expensive too. What do you do in that situation? When the public says you must have every single thing recorded for accountability, but that’s not, in practice, practical?
Cortez: Educate the public on how impractical it is. I think the public in general is so misinformed and uninformed. And they don’t realize how sometimes being a police officer is monotonous.
Sean: Here we received a call on the radio to pick up some evidence from a scene. We continued our conversation afterwards, this time focusing on what the public will get from the body cameras.
Cortez: They’re not going to be getting as many Ah-ha’s.
Sean: Do you think the public will be surprised by that?
Cortez: Yes. I think the attitude towards police right now is that we’re all crooked and stop people for no reason, and all we do all day is harass people for no reason and shoot people for no reason — no reason — just want to shoot people for no reason!
Sean: How do you think the cameras are going to change that?
Cortez: Reasons for why we do what we have to do.
Sean: But without access to the video footage themselves, how will the public get to that point?
Cortez: They’re on YouTube. There was a shooting I saw the other day from, I think, Texas, that I saw on YouTube.
Sean: But RPD footage specifically isn’t available. Do you think there is there anything you could put out to help clear up this confusion?
Cortez: Confusion about what?
Sean: About what’s happening. Do you think you could maybe make the body camera footage available to the public to show them what it is? Many people are going to want all it or none of it, otherwise it could appear cherrypicked. So I’m wondering how the footage itself will abate the misconceptions that you’re talking about.
Cortez: I see what you’re saying. I have to think about that for a little bit before I can answer that.
Sean: Cortez thinks for a while. There isn’t an easy answer to this. The body camera footage that the RPD collects isn’t available for public access. And discretionary use of the technology further limits the potential for accountability and transparency that was hailed by Deputy Police Chief Brown. True accountability — in the way that the public expects and police handbook outlines — would require constant recording from the body cameras. That’s not something many officers are interested in.
Cortez: Of course, I was resistant to the cameras at first, but now that I have it I’m kind of whatever. So thinking of every single stop I have being open for the public to research and look at on a database makes me super uncomfortable.
Cortez: I think it’s the same reason as it made me uncomfortable for wearing the camera in the first place. It’s new, I feel very exposed, but not in a bad way. I know I’m not doing anything wrong, but let’s say someone followed you around with a camera all day. It’s like the Truman Show.
Sean: It’s a vulnerable place to be when people are just watching you.
Cortez: And critiquing every single thing you do. So, no, I don’t want that. That’s not what I signed up for when I became a police officer.
Sean: Despite feelings of being uncomfortable — however valid those may be — the RPD policy says that every call for service has to be recorded. As police practices are now, the public are the ones being held accountable, since only the RPD has access to that video footage. For there to be true accountability and transparency, there will have to be more consistent use of the cameras. That leads us to Part 3: long term results of the cameras. What are the cameras going to accomplish? How will they change relations between the RPD and the public?
Previously: Body Cameras in the RPD: Hardware and History