Body cams go off duty

The ef­fort doesn’t go far enough, agency crit­ics say.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Noelle Phillips

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.

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