Body cameras show Detroit police on both sides of law

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A west side liquor store owner last year made two allegations against a Detroit police officer, whose body-worn camera later discredited one of the claims, but proved the other accusation was accurate.

A Detroit police body-cam video of a June 2018 incident will be used to train officers how to deal with mentally-ill citizens.

The business owner in July 2017 called police to complain about a man who wouldn't leave the store. The arriving officer falsely told the owner he wasn't allowed to write the man a loitering ticket.

When the store owner threatened to take matters into his own hands, the cop warned he'd arrest him if he did anything illegal — contradicting the owner's claim that the officer had threatened to arrest him if he didn't stay behind his counter. The store owner dropped his complaint after being shown the body-camera footage, police officials said.

A year after Detroit launched a $5.2 million program to outfit officers with body cameras, footage has exonerated and implicated cops accused of wrongdoing. The videos also provide insight into what went right or wrong during critical incidents, allowing supervisors to train officers accordingly, said Assistant Chief James White.

"The body camera program creates transparency for our officers, which is exactly what it was designed to do," said White, who wrote the department's body camera policy. "The videos I've reviewed show what I expected: That most of our officers are acting professionally.


"There have also been a few violations and mistakes (captured by the cameras), which gives us a chance to correct what went wrong," White said.

The department has 1,500 body cameras, which are being used by all patrol officers — including those working downtown — plus officers assigned to the narcotics squad and special response team, the assistant chief said. All of the cameras record audio as well as video footage.

The Office of the Chief Investigator, the arm of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners that fields noncriminal complaints against officers, handled 439 allegations between January and June. Only 30 percent of the claims were proven.

Body-camera footage supported 133 of the allegations, while 109 officers were exonerated and 197 of the claims were deemed unfounded, according to data provided by the investigator's office. 

Not always on

The increasing use of body cameras by police departments has prompted privacy concerns, along with questions about how much footage the public is entitled to see. Last year, Michigan enacted a law exempting footage taken in private settings from open records requests.

Civil rights advocates point out that police body cameras are only good if they're operational. There have been multiple instances of officer-involved shootings nationwide in which cops either turned off or muted their body cameras.

"Body cams are great — if they're turned on," said Kenneth Reed, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality. "But as we've seen, there are issues with them not being turned on. How do you make sure officers are turning them on when they're supposed to?"

Detroit police policy requires officers to engage their cameras "prior to initiating, or as soon as practical after initiating ... all contacts with citizens in the performance of his/her official duties."

However, White said it's not always possible for officers to turn on the cameras.

"For instance, if we have a situation where there's a gunman, we don't want our officers to put themselves or citizens in danger," he said. "There are circumstances where it's not always practical to stop and turn on the body cam."

In the event officers can't immediately engage their body cameras, footage of incidents can often be captured by dashboard cameras, which are integrated with all Detroit police body cameras, White said.

When Mayor Mike Duggan announced plans to link the camera systems in 2015, he said Detroit would be the first city in the country to integrate body and dashboard cameras.

Video proof

During the July 24, 2017, incident at the west side liquor store, the business owner called police to complain a man had been loitering for hours and was refusing to leave. The owner said it was a recurring problem. 

When officers arrived, one of the cops ordered the man to vacate the premises. The man complied.

The store owner implored the officer to issue a loitering ticket because he said the man was likely to come back after the police left. The cop claimed his hands were tied. 

"The problem is, they've made it so we can't even write tickets for (loitering) now," the officer said, according to body camera footage reviewed by The Detroit News. "I'm telling you by experience."

It was incorrect information. Detroit officers regularly write loitering tickets.

The cop, whose name was withheld by police officials because he was not formally charged, was later instructed by his supervisors to issue loitering tickets when it's appropriate.

The store owner also alleged the officer warned him not to come from behind his counter or he'd be arrested. The body camera footage tells a different story.

"Next time, I'm not going to put up with it," the businessman said after the officer told him he couldn't write a ticket.

The cop responded: "And if you do anything illegal, then I will be locking you up ... you're behind this glass; you're behind this door. That's where you need to stay."

Citizens aren't necessarily lying when they make faulty accusations against officers, White said.

"A lot of times when police are called, emotions are high, and people don't hear or see things as they actually happened," he said. "People's memories aren't always accurate. That's why the body cams are so important: They let us see what happened."

Following an Aug. 6, 2017, traffic stop on Detroit's west side in which an officer searched a vehicle, the motorist filed a larceny report alleging the cop had stolen $800 from the glove box. 

"The officer's body camera was on the entire time," Police Chief James Craig said. "It proved the officer didn't take the money.

"The man was shown the video, and he dropped the charges. He knew his money had been taken, and he just assumed it was the police officer who did it. After he saw the footage, he said the most likely suspect was the woman who was in the car with him."

In August 2017, body camera footage captured Detroit Police Officer Aubrey Wade making insensitive remarks after a Michigan State trooper deployed his Taser on an ATV driver, 15-year-old Damon Grimes, who died after crashing into a parked flatbed. Wade was taken off patrol duty.

In November, an officer's body camera recorded a fight between cops at the 11th and 12th Precincts during a drug raid in which some officers weren't aware they were fighting their undercover co-workers. Craig called the incident "one of the most embarrassing things I've seen in this department since I was appointed chief."

White said body cam footage from a June incident in southwest Detroit will be used to train officers how to properly deal with mentally ill citizens.

"This was a textbook example of how to handle mental runs," White said.

In the dramatic video, a man sits in the middle of Cahalan Street holding a butcher knife to his throat, threatening to kill himself. An officer negotiates with the man, offering him a cigarette if he puts the knife down.

When the man lowers the knife, another cop shoots him with his Taser. As officers rush to take away the knife and handcuff the distraught man, the cop who'd been negotiating with him says: "You OK? We're gonna get you some help, OK, brother?"

"Please do," the man implores. "Please."

'They tell the real story'

Modern police body-worn cameras were introduced in Britain in 2005, although Dutch police experimented with them in the 1990s. 

As recently as 2013, fewer than 25 percent of U.S. police departments equipped officers with body cameras, according to a National Institute of Justice informal survey of 500 law enforcement agencies.

That began to change after Aug. 9, 2014, when Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an incident that sparked riots and nationwide outrage.

It was initially reported that Brown's hands were raised, prompting the phrase "hands up, don't shoot" — but a U.S. Department of Justice investigation disputed the claim that Brown was surrendering and ruled the shooting justified.

Three weeks after the Brown shooting, Ferguson police began wearing body cameras. Other departments followed suit.

It's unclear how many police departments are equipped with body cameras, although as of February, 34 states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws governing their use.

As of last year, about 50 law enforcement agencies in Michigan were using body cameras, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of the body camera privacy bill that was signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Snyder.

The federal government in 2015 issued $23 million in grants to police departments to implement the use of body cameras. Detroit received $1 million, although Detroit police had already launched body-cam test programs in the 2nd and 11th Precincts.

"What was different about Detroit is, the officers came to us and said they wanted body cameras," Craig said. "That was unusual because police officers are often resistant to change."

Mark Diaz, president of the Detroit Police Officers Association union, said he's happy officers are equipped with cameras because they often exonerate them from claims of wrongdoing.

"That's why the DPOA  and our officers were so adamant about getting them: they tell the real story," Diaz said. "We get a lot of unfounded allegations made against us.

"Unfortunately, when someone is caught committing a crime, they tend to look for any way out of being responsible for their actions, and a lot of times that means accusing a cop of doing something wrong.

"As soon as we show them the body cam footage, they change their stories."

Detroit Officer Kyle Moore, a member of the police union's executive board, cautioned that sometimes body cameras fail to capture crucial information.

"An officer could make an observation from a half-block away that someone was drinking alcohol, or doing something else that would give probable cause to stop him, but the body cam might not pick that up," Moore said. "There's a lot of police work that isn't captured in its entirety by a body cam."

More study needed

It's unclear whether body cameras reduce the instances of police use of force.

A 2017 University of Las Vegas study found "the technology is associated with significant reductions in complaints of police misconduct and police use of force incidents."

However, a study conducted in 2017 by Washington D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department concluded: "We are unable to detect any statistically significant effects (of body-worn cameras on instances of force by and against police officers). As such, our experiment suggests that we should recalibrate our expectations of (body-worn cameras)."

White said fewer lawsuits have been filed against the police department since Detroit officers began using body cameras last year, but he added: "I can't say definitively that body cams are the reason for that."

White said the only surprise that's surfaced since the department initiated the body camera program was the amount of space needed to store the videos, which are retained in criminal cases at least until all appeals have been exhausted.

Depending on the situation, White said some footage will be archived in perpetuity. 

"That requires a massive amount of storage space," he said. "We're trying to figure that out now. We're looking at storing the footage on Blu-ray — but then you need somewhere to store the discs. We didn't anticipate how much space was going to be needed.

"But overall, the program has been a success," White said. "It creates transparency. We have nothing to hide."
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN