Sometimes, it can take a while for national trends to reach Durango: Case in point, body cameras for law enforcement.
The Durango Police Department deployed 46 body cameras earlier this year, giving each on-duty officer a personal recording device to attach to his or her chest. As of last week, the cameras had documented 2,414 encounters, amounting to 507 hours of video, Cmdr. Ray Shupe said.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and police officers seem to agree the availability of footage from police interactions will provide context and transparency through the judicial process.
Officers with the DPD are required to turn on their body cameras any time they have an interaction with a subject, whether that be a traffic stop, domestic violence call or citizen assist. Two property technicians with the police department are in charge of categorizing all those hours of footage and sharing them with prosecutors and defense attorneys as needed.
The cameras are used even during seemingly inconsequential encounters, such as when an officer approached a house late at night, rang a doorbell and informed the resident that her garage door was left open.
The cost of the cameras is $96,000 for the first year and $89,000 for subsequent years when less training will be needed. Some departments across the country have been dumping the technology because of the high cost, Shupe said, but the benefits to police can be invaluable.
“It’s hard to put a price tag on what that gives to an agency,” Shupe said.
For the District Attorney’s Office, the availability of video evidence is another tool in the prosecutorial toolbox, said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne.
“We’re seeing the truth, and oftentimes, videos can be the best record of what occurred,” Champagne said.
While body cameras provide another window into a case, they may not tell the whole story, he cautioned.
He cited an incident that happened last month in Washington, D.C., as an example. A Covington Catholic High School student was captured on video silently staring a Native American man in the face after a March for Life anti-abortion rally. In a video that went viral earlier this year, the young man is seen standing in front of and smirking at the man while he beats a drum. The boy, who wore a red Make America Great Again hat, says nothing in the video. Many who watched the video believed the student was being disrespectful, intimidating and confrontational. The incident set off a contentious national debate about politics and racism.
That video and the students of Covington Catholic were the subject of intense scrutiny online. A report dated Feb. 11 from Greater Cincinnati Investigation, a private investigating firm retained by the Covington Diocese, concluded that the students had made no “offensive or racist statements” to the Native American elder.
“There can be a danger of over-reliance on video evidence,” Champagne said.
Videos aren’t always the ultimate purveyor of the truth, said Durango defense attorney Brian Schowalter. He cited the Rodney King case in 1991.
King, a black man, was beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers during an arrest for fleeing and evading police. The incident was caught on camera by someone standing on a nearby balcony. The footage was later shared with media and made headlines worldwide.
The four officers in that case were charged with use of excessive force. Three were acquitted, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the fourth. The outcome sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which lasted six days and resulted in more than 50 people dead and more than 2,000 injured.
In this case, Schowalter said, the people of Los Angeles had a different interpretation of the video than the 12-person jury. In a case of his own, Schowalter said he had dashcam evidence that he was sure would exonerate his client. The jury, in its decision, thought differently, he said.
“I feel like when people say the truth will come out better (with body camera footage), I don’t think it’s that,” Schowalter said. “From my perspective, it can help my client, but the prosecutor can look at it and say it’s incriminating.”
Body camera footage does, however, remove the filter that police often have when making an arrest.
In driving-under-the-influence cases, in which camera footage is often used, police are trained to look for signs that someone is drunk. But law enforcement often misses indicators that could exonerate suspects, Schowalter said.
“It permits more interpretation; it’s more egalitarian in terms of interpretation of the case,” he said.
The Durango Police Department hopes body camera footage will reduce the amount of time officers spend in court testifying, Shupe said. The department also hopes the cameras will promote better conduct from police officers and suspects. People tend to temper their behavior when they know they’re on camera, he said.
“I think everybody sees the benefit to using the body cameras,” Shupe said.