Why Are Cops Given the Right to Turn Off Their Dashcams?

When a cop that pulls you over and takes a minute to turn off their dashboard camera meant to record what transpires at the scene, it's probably not because she's going to surprise you with diamond ring. It's probably because what's going to happen isn't exactly in line with police code. 

A recent lawsuit alleging police brutality has brought this damning recording to light. The newly-disclosed footage (from April 2014, when the incident occurred) shows two St. Louis police officers pulling over Cortez Bufford, reportedly for speeding and making an illegal U-turn. After approaching his vehicle, the officers pulled him out of his car, subdued him to the ground, kicked him, and tased him twice. 

As this was going on, one of the officers Kelli Swinton yelled, "Hold up. Hold up, y'all. Hold up. Hold up, everybody, hold up. We're red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait." Red means the camera mounted on the cruiser's dashboard was rolling. It wasn't red for much longer. Bufford and his legal representation are suing for damages, which included more than $6,000 in medical fees. What that dashcam could have captured had it remained on could indeed make this an open and shut case. Unfortunately it wasn't, which raises the question: why can officers turn them off at will? 

There's no comprehensive data on just how many squad cars are fitted with dash cams, but law enforcement seems to be in agreement that both officers and civilians do nothing but benefit from the recordings. To the officers' advantage: dash cam footage can be used to overturn claims of misconduct made against them. For civilians, the illuminating evidence is admissible in court should they need it to make a case against an unjust arrest, and plead their innocence. 

So why don't all cops have them installed on their dashboards as a rule? For the same reason you're probably guessing, and that's cost. Back in 2007 the Orlando Police Department of Florida started integrating the new technology, outfitting their squad cars with IRIS cameras that cost $9,500 a pop. Even older models ranged from $2,000 "“ $7,000.

Innovating law enforcement, Ethan Miller / Getty Images News

Presumably this was the reasoning behind New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's move to veto a measure back in January of 2014 that would require most police vehicles to get the upgrade, though he did not give any justification. Jersey Republican lawmakers balked at the price tag, but in the bill was a suggested $25 surcharge on drunk driving penalties to help cover the cost of the cams, which, admittedly, don't come cheap. 

But it was an expense the Newark police force didn't spare back in 2012, when it outfitted 52 of its 400 cruisers to the collective tune of $336,000. The purchase was paid for in part by technology grants won four years prior, which should show just how slow going this process can be. The police force bought the gadgets from Safety Vision after the first company they were partnering up with went bankrupt. 

The cool thing about Safety Vision's devices is that they're constantly recording. But they only upload the video and audio to a server when the cruiser's lights and sirens are turned on, that is, in a crisis situation. What's disconcerting is that officers have some discretion on when they can shut the cams down. Why? 

It would appear that the answer is that the policies that dictate when a cop can and cannot turn off his or her dash cam aren't consistent across jurisdictions or set in stone. They seriously need to be. Just this past January, an upstate New York sheriff turned off his dash cam before arresting an off-duty police officer. An officer in Florida received nothing more than a written reprimand for turning off his dash cam just before he proceeded to beat a 66-year-old man resisting arrest. Again, why even give officers the option? 

If there are any reasons at all for giving officers a say in the matter, Vox made some astute points in an article on the pros and cons of specifically body camera use and police officers. Though the advantages are overwhelming, there are drawbacks: body cams can scare away potential informants, as well as pick up on unintentionally crude or inappropriate cop humor.

He looks like he could use a selfie, Hannah Peters / Getty Images Sports

The second excuse is bogus. Treat that job like any other job, and behave honorably. The first has got a point. A snitch might cower before a vest cam, and clam up, if there's even the slightest fear of being identified. Except officers pulling over drivers usually aren't doing so with the intention of getting them to rat someone else out. 

Again, why is there still a gray area when it comes to the dash cam protocol for cops? Why are there "no national guidelines on the use of dashcams or body cameras," as police chief William A. Farrar in Rialto, California tells us? Especially when raw footage could nail down with certainty the unknowns in an altercation, like the one that left Michael Brown dead in Ferguson, MO? 

Could it be that there's just not enough room for all the footage if the dashcams were to run and run? Though it's not police grade, the LK-7900 dashcam, which can accommodate a 128 GB memory chip, can run for an estimated 28 hours according to Dashboard Camera Reviews, and runs around $224. This one's not up to squad car grade, but it shows you the potential range of capacity on these things. 

There should be no technological limitation preventing dashcams from at the very least capturing every second of what it sees, whether or not it sends that data to a server. Whatever gets recorded can be used to discredit or corroborate a cop or civilian's testimony. Deleting or doctoring that record could be considered tampering with evidence, which is a major felony.

And though shutting off a recording device doesn't sound like it constitutes as tampering with evidence, it's almost like preemptive tampering. It's the premeditated concealment of what could very well be an incriminating record of events. Police organizations should treat this kind of creative dashcam use as severely as the Federal Government punishes messing with material of the court. Hint: it's more than just the issuance of a written reprimand.
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