Five Years after Ferguson, a Glimpse into Police Work with Body-Worn Cameras
by Louis Butcher
This past summer marked the five-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association head, Jeff Roorda, acknowledged the occasion by uploading a Facebook post featuring a photo of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, Brown’s shooter, and a caption reading, “Happy Alive Day, Darren!” It is difficult to argue whether in these ensuing five years there has ever been a time of greater ideological division between the police and the citizens they are tasked to protect and serve. Eric Garner’s death at the hands of NYPD officers the month previous in Staten Island, New York, put the issue of police brutality – particularly aimed towards black, unarmed men – at the forefront of the 24-hour news cycle, and, consequently, the American psyche. Events in Ferguson, soon after, saw an explosion of indignation and protest from a population aggrieved by what was perceived to be a systematic and disproportionate mistreatment by local law enforcement – a claim confirmed when the Ferguson Police Department was later found by a US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation as guilty of myriad civil rights violations, primarily targeting its black residents as a means of bolstering revenue collection.
Not since the acquittal of the LAPD officers involved in the bystander-taped assault of Rodney King had relations between the police and the black community been so frayed. The protests in Ferguson became a flash point and reignited the perennial American debate on how minorities are policed; likewise, they served as a catalyst for the ascendance of Black Lives Matter, heretofore a marginal protest movement formed following the (non-police) killing of Trayvon Martin, into the national vocabulary and consciousness. Many more highly-publicized, police killings of unarmed black men would follow, as well as an increasing number of ambush-style killings of officers by a handful of troubled citizens looking to turn the tables of that lopsided power dynamic. Nevertheless, the majority of citizens were seeking to constructively address and heal this trying and tenuous police-citizen relationship, and consensus soon emerged in support of a technology that until then had only been used by a handful of police departments: body-worn cameras (BWCs). Since 2014, there has been a concerted public push to introduce measures such as this to ensure greater police accountability, which, in turn, has led to federal BWC programs such as the Police Data Initiative in 2015, allotting DOJ funding to police departments in exchange for sharing use of force statistics.
My research is looking to assess the impact of BWCs on police use of force and complaints over a more extended, longitudinal period than has previously been attempted: the majority of BWC studies have been commissioned directly by police departments and almost without exception have been between just 3-18 months in length. I am particularly interested in officers’ behavior beyond this probationary type timeframe, whereby the ‘Hawthorne effect’ – in which humans alter their behavior when conscious of being observed – has a declining influence on their reluctance to use force as time passes. The goal of my research is to look at use of force and complaints data charted over a much longer period of time (i.e., 5-10 years), and this required finding police departments to use as case studies that checked a number of specific boxes: first of all, whether their BWC programs were sufficient in duration, which proved no simple task as the majority of police departments only implemented this technology in the wake of Ferguson; and secondly, whether their protocols on recording BWC footage, and then its subsequent use and handling, were sufficient to ensure the veracity of the use of force and complaints data.
My first field research trip in 2018 took me to Post Falls, Idaho, a small commuter city in the Pacific Northwest with a police BWC program that closely matched my case study selection criteria. I happened upon the Post Falls Police Department (PFPD) as a potential research location while reading an article on BWCs in The Atlantic, entitled, “How One Small Idaho City Has Embraced Body Cameras.” The PFPD had been one of the first small police departments in the country to adopt the technology, at a time when even few major city departments were using them. Police Chief Pat Knight was a fantastic host in welcoming me to Post Falls (even lending me his bicycle for commuting to and from my Airbnb!) and embraced my research wholeheartedly. He paired me up with Lieutenant Mark Brantl, who sought to help facilitate my project in any way he could by arranging ride-alongs for me with patrol sergeants or allowing me the time to trawl through the data. We also had a sit-down discussion with Joel Ryan, the Post Falls City Prosecutor, to talk about the impact of the PFPD’s BWC footage use in judicial matters and the help this footage had in expediting criminal prosecutions. Furthermore, I was given a detailed understanding of how BWCs were deployed and how their footage was processed and utilized within the department.
My ride-alongs with Sergeant Pat Eismann, and Officers Brenda Knight and Daniel Sanicola, were some of the most enjoyable and candid experiences during my time in Idaho, giving me a much greater sense of the challenges modern-day US police forces face. Two moments stood out above all else that made me reconsider the momentary reactions sometimes required by officers that could have been at play in many (though not all) of the high-profile police killings of unarmed citizens we have seen broadcasted worldwide. In the first, Sergeant Eismann and I were on an evening ride-along and received a call about a potentially abandoned car left running with its doors open in a school parking lot. As we approached, slowly driving and assessing the scene, Eismann reported back through his radio about the potential, however unlikely, for an ambush situation. The tension was palpable (at least for me) and we both scanned eagle-eyed in the darkness for any possible threats. Ultimately, we could not locate the reported car and the conceivable ‘threat’ perceived just seconds earlier now seemed totally innocuous. Yet, the reality was that recent ambush killings of officers in Des Moines, Iowa; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Dallas, Texas, were still fresh in our minds and one of the single deadliest events of this type took place nine years earlier just across in neighboring Washington State, where four Lakewood Police Department officers were executed sitting at a restaurant table in broad daylight. Although those are admittedly rare occurrences, these hyper-vigilant thoughts, particularly in states like Idaho where gun ownership is ubiquitous, are ever-present.
The other memorable moment during my time in Idaho was one more commonly expected in a Hollywood blockbuster or the new Netflix crime series. I was waiting to be dropped home following an evening ride-along, and just after midnight during the patrol’s shift changeover a belligerent man called into the police department threatening to show up and kill himself in front of us. He contended that if any officers were to intervene, he would also attempt to kill them. Going into a night shift, there were perhaps only six or seven officers on duty, but the station was immediately put on alert, and I was sent to the emergency dispatch response room (for insurance reasons) with the few women working there on shift. Even then, we had concerns about this person shooting at us in the dispatch room, as our ceiling-height windows faced out directly over the lobby and adjacent to the guest parking lot, where he would likely stop his car and have a clear line of sight on us, located immediately out in front of the building. I had to duck my head down to watch the CCTV of the complex while we awaited his arrival. After pulling his car up and then spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in there with things feeling on a knife-edge, he approached the police station and entered through the lobby doors. Thankfully, the reception desk there has bulletproof windows and Sergeant Eismann, safely stationed behind them, tried to talk him down. It was not at first clear whether he had a gun, but he soon pulled out a knife and was gesticulating erratically while conversing with Eismann. He eventually put the weapon down and agreed to give himself up. Most of the officers on duty entered the lobby through a side door, approaching in a tactical formation behind a large bulletproof shield, and soon took him into custody without any trouble… certainly not your average Friday night. I sat in on their post-incident analysis getting to hear the positives and negatives on both strategy and execution, before finally getting a lift home. I was glad to hear later that this was not a common occurrence for the department – someone making a threat like this within the department itself was, in fact, a first – but it did reinforce the reality that police are faced with these situations as and when they arise, and it was, naturally, a very nerve-racking situation even just to watch unfold.
My time in Idaho was an eye-opener (and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that), but what became more clear to me than ever is that BWCs are unquestionably here to stay. Without being able to present any specific data from my forthcoming doctoral thesis, what I can say, at least anecdotally-speaking, is that I have seen wide-ranging support for BWCs from those in law enforcement. In spite of stout resistance to BWCs initially from many major police unions across the country, as well as apprehension in first using them by officers, they are being increasingly embraced as a tool to not just protect the rights of citizens, but officers too. Five years on from Ferguson, divisions are still rife across the nation and the widespread distrust in police as an institution has not magically dissipated. Any proactive steps that police departments take to ensure they provide greater accountability to the citizens they are meant to protect and serve not only benefits everyone involved, but also goes some way towards facilitating the healing process in police-citizen relations that has been long overdue. Ultimately, BWCs are not a panacea, yet they sure are a good place to start – and a plucky town in Idaho has been leading the way on that.
Louis Butcher is a doctoral researcher at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. His project focuses on assessing the impact of police body-worn cameras on use of force and complaints. Louis received his BA in Modern European History from the University of Bradford and his MA in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg.