Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry says he plans to launch the state’s first body camera program before the end of the year — with or without support from the state’s powerful police union.
Perry has been negotiating with the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers for several months over the best way to implement the new technology. He said most of the union’s concerns have been addressed, but one remaining issue is whether the union needs to sign off on the policy before it’s enacted.
Perry has said it’s up to him to decide whether body cameras should be used and how. Working with SHOPO was a courtesy, he said.
But SHOPO President Tenari Maafala has argued the union’s collective bargaining agreement clearly mandates SHOPO involvement.
The Kauai negotiations could have implications for the rest of the state. Maui and Hawaii counties have already conducted pilot programs to test body cameras. The Honolulu Police Department — the 20th largest department in the U.S. — is also considering the technology.
“I want the public to understand that this is a good thing and that we’re doing this for noble purposes,” Perry said. “The work of police officers and law enforcement nationwide is evolving and we have to keep up with the technology.”
High-profile police killings — particularly of black men — have resulted in widespread protests and a push for better law enforcement oversight and accountability. Affixing body cameras to police officers has been a significant part of that discussion.
Police agencies across the country are beginning to use body cameras, and the Obama administration is providing $75 million over three years to help purchase the equipment.
The Hawaii Legislature considered two measures earlier this year to help local police departments pay for body cameras. But those bills died along with several other police reform bills aimed to increase transparency and accountability.
“It’s a good thing. It will keep you in check to make sure you’re not goofing around or doing something stupid. It will also reveal the truth of what happened.” — SHOPO President Tenari Maafala
While SHOPO opposition can often spell the end to reform measures, the picture isn’t as clear when it comes to body cameras.
SHOPO officials have been leery of widespread implementation of the technology, saying in legislative testimony that they have concerns about long-term costs, privacy issues and how the footage would be released to the public.
But Maafala, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, has said SHOPO is generally supportive of the technology.
“It’s a good thing,” Maafala said during an April police commission conference in Waikiki. “It will keep you in check to make sure you’re not goofing around or doing something stupid. It will also reveal the truth of what happened.”
While body cameras are often looked at as a means to keep tabs on police actions, they can also protect officers from false allegations of misconduct and wrongdoing that can lead to costly internal affairs investigations and lawsuits.
For instance, Perry said body camera footage from a traffic stop on Kauai during a test period recently cleared an officer of an accusation of acting inappropriately toward a suspect.
The officer had been accused of detaining the suspect without explanation and forcing him to sit outside in the rain for up to an hour, Perry said. Footage from the incident ultimately refuted the allegations and resulted in the department going after the suspect for filing a false complaint.
“It shows the whole spectrum of what happened,” Perry said. “We want the whole story to be told, not just one side.”
The Kauai Police Department purchased 105 body cameras for its patrol officers as part of a five-year, $675,675 deal with Taser that includes free data storage, camera replacement and 105 electric guns.
Kauai’s body camera policy has not been finalized. Perry said he will release the policy publicly once it’s completed, but said it generally follows standards set by other departments across the country.
He also said his department has made at least 95 percent of the changes that SHOPO has requested. There have been some sticking points, however.
Perry said a major concern from SHOPO was that the footage should not be used by supervisors to seek out minor policy violations unless there was a specific complaint or incident requiring such a review. He said union officials used the term “witch hunt” to describe these concerns, and noted that the department’s policy specifically prohibits such actions.
Perry said the union also wanted officers to have discretion over when they turned their body cameras on and off. But he said he has refused to budge on that.
The policy mandates that officers turn on the cameras before nearly every interaction with a member of the public, such as during a traffic stop, an arrest or while conducting an interview. Officers also must turn on their cameras when transporting suspects who are in custody or while doing crowd control.
“We’ve done our part and now we’re asking SHOPO to do their part. If they’re as committed to the program as they say they are, well, actions speak louder than words.” — Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry
There are some exceptions. Officers are allowed to switch off their cameras, for example, when talking to confidential informants or while interviewing witnesses of rape or incest. The cameras can also be turned off if a cooperative witness feels uncomfortable giving a statement while being recorded or when officers are talking to one another.
Perry said he expects to hear from SHOPO soon about any additional concerns it might have with the policy. But he doesn’t want to wait any longer than necessary to outfit his officers with body cameras. He wants to move ahead as planned to implement the program before 2016.
“We’ve done our part and now we’re asking SHOPO to do their part,” Perry said. “If they’re as committed to the program as they say they are, well, actions speak louder than words.”
Friction between police departments and unions over body cameras is not uncommon. Often, union officials will complain that they weren’t consulted before a policy was implemented, or that it infringed on collective bargaining agreements, which is something SHOPO has contended during the Kauai process.
In Denver, a police union filed a lawsuit saying as much, and charging in a press release that “an ill-conceived body camera program breeds distrust amongst community members and the officers expected to operate this important policing tool.”
Among the concerns were that the department wanted officers to turn on their cameras while working off-duty security assignments. The lawsuit also raised concerns about protecting privacy and the level of discretion officers had for turning their cameras off.
There have been more fundamental disagreements over body cameras as well, such as in Miami-Dade County, Florida, where the police union said body cameras threatened officer safety because it could be a distraction to turn them on during a potentially dangerous encounter.
Marc Blitz, a law professor at Oklahoma City University, has studied the use of body cameras, their benefits and the potential threats to privacy.
He says they aren’t a “magic solution,” but that the technology does hold promise in preserving evidence, assuring accountability and exonerating police officers unfairly accused of wrongful actions.
Blitz says there are still many questions about the best use of body cameras, particularly when it comes to privacy matters and giving officers discretion to turn them off.
In 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union initially called for all public encounters to be recorded, but two years later refined its position when considering situations in which witnesses and victims are interviewed.
The Police Executive Research Forum also addressed the matter in a 2014 report on body cameras, finding that officers should have at least some discretion when pointing the lens at someone. The report also noted that policies that don’t allow such discretion can have a negative effect on morale because they imply a lack of trust in officers.
Blitz said a good policy should have strict guidelines for when cameras are turned on or off. If the rules are too loose, he said, a body camera program can lose credibility with the public. The same will occur if footage disappears or if cameras are not turned on in critical situations.
At the same time, he said, the public must understand that no program is infallible. For instance, a camera could malfunction.
Other issues that must be addressed include when to release body camera footage to the public. While much of that will be dependent on state public records laws, Blitz said there will be cases in which individuals will have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as if they are recorded in their own homes.
“I’m not sure what the ideal solution is and I suspect there might have to be a little bit of experimentation before it’s clear what works,” Blitz said.
“Obviously, there are some things you want to do your best to get right before the cameras go up. On the other hand, it may not be realistic that you’ll be able to anticipate all of the complexities and all of the problems.”