Body cams go off duty
The effort doesn’t go far enough, agency critics say.
Denver Police Department officers moonlighting at bars, sports events and other off-duty jobs will begin wearing body cameras as the department expands its camera usage, but police critics say the policy still doesn’t go far enough.
The department announced the expansion and an updated body camera policy Friday afternoon, saying officers will start wearing the cameras Saturday when working off-duty assignments. The department’s sergeants began using the cameras in June, said Cmdr. James Henning, who leads the investigative support division.
In all, more than 1,400 officers will wear the cameras.
The expansion is a response to a critique by the city’s police watchdog, who in 2015 said the department’s plan to roll out cameras should include off-duty officers, sergeants and the SWAT unit because those cops often are involved in use-offorce incidents. His recommendations also were supported by community groups who follow police issues and by several City Council members.
In a Friday news release, the department said its Metro/ SWAT unit would begin using the cameras, which was one of the recommendations from independent monitor Nick Mitchell. However, those officers won’t activate the cameras when working a planned operation, according to the police
department’s operations manual.
Denise Maes, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, questioned why Chief Robert White and his staff decided to include that exception for SWAT officers.
“I’m a little puzzled, or perplexed, as to when they would be on,” Maes said. “That’s when you’re going to have the most questionable operations. I’m baffled by why that’s the exception.”
The Denver Police Department introduced body cameras after a pilot program in 2014 in District 6, which covers downtown. White declared the pilot a success and announced that all officers working patrol, traffic and with the gang unit would wear them.
The community supported the cameras as a way to hold officers accountable in their interactions with citizens, especially after controversial police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and other cities across the country. Police and prosecutors value the footage as an investigative tool in criminal cases.
But critics asked the department to widen the cameras’ usage after an analysis by Mitchell determined that many use-of-force incidents were not recorded because not enough officers were wearing the cameras.
In his analysis, Mitchell determined that only about one out of every four useof-force incidents was actually recorded.
Of 80 reported use of force incidents during the pilot program, 35 involved sergeants and other supervisors or officers working off duty. Off-duty officers are hired to work as private security and businesses pay their wages, but they wear police uniforms and must follow department policies and procedures.
Other failures happened because officers forgot to turn the cameras on or because of technical malfunctions.
At the time, Mitchell’s analysis angered White and other department officials. But White eventually agreed in 2015 to expand the cameras to off-duty officers and promised City Council he would figure out how to make it happen. He continued to resist calls for the SWAT unit to use them, saying the cameras could jeopardize secretive tactics used in their operations.
On Friday, Mitchell said in a statement, “I commend Chief White for equipping officers working off duty with body cameras. I am evaluating the new body camera policy and will have further comment in the future.”
City Council approved money to buy the additional cameras, and the department will use grant money to help defray the costs, Henning said. Businesses who hire officers to work private security will be charged a nominal fee to help pay for the video storage, he said.
All officers in the six districts, traffic unit and gang unit were issued body cameras by the end of 2016, Henning said. In recent months, another 400 or so officers have been issued cameras and trained on how to use them.
Officers do not continually record their actions. Instead, they turn the cameras on during an enforcement action, Henning said. So an officer working at a Rockies baseball game would start recording only if he was responding to a complaint at the stadium.
Officers also have been issued docking stations to take home so they can download footage to a secure storage site, Henning said. Previously, officers had to download footage at their district stations, and they did not want to be forced to drive across the city after working off-duty assignments to do so.
Nick Rogers, president of the Denver Police Protective Association, said the union was not included in the latest body camera expansion and revised policy for using them, even though the union had prevailed in a court case where a judge ruled they were entitled to negotiate those policies. The city has appealed the judge’s decision.
Rogers, who said he had not read the entire policy, questioned whether a requirement that officers download footage within two hours of finishing their shifts would violate overtime policies.
Despite the continuing criticism, the Denver Police Department has one of the most expansive body camera policies in the country, Henning said. The department’s officers have been receptive to wearing them.
In June, The Associated Press reported that six major U.S. police departments require officers to wear the cameras while moonlighting.
“We’re cutting-edge here,” he said.