The St. Louis city police department has been operating body-worn cameras on city streets for almost 90 days, but just last week did St. Louis City Police Chief Sam Dotson inform an aldermanic committee and city residents about his policy on the three-month pilot program. At a March 10 hearing, the public safety committee heard from activist groups about their opinion of the police chief’s policy.
“The police leadership seems to have a tendency to make decisions behind closed doors,” said Kayla Reed, an activist with the Don’t Shoot Coalition. “As we continue to highlight recommendations for body cameras, we have to recognize that this is not the first time the St. Louis police have entered a policy without public input or support.”
At the hearing, the Body Camera Coalition – which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, the Don’t Shoot Coalition and Drone Free St. Louis – presented a united front in their critique of the policy and offered suggestions. Overall, the coalition felt that the policy has too many gray areas, including when the cameras are turned on and whether or not officers must tell people that they are being recorded.
The coalition believes that the cameras must be recording whenever an officer is interacting with the public. However, when interviewing crime victims and witnesses, the officers should ask those individuals if they want the cameras to stay on, the coalition members said. The chief’s policy states that officers are never required to turn off cameras upon request, and officers can use their discretion on whether or not to keep filming.
Giving the power to turn off the cameras to the victims and witnesses promotes cooperation, according to the coalition.
The coalition believes that the officers should always notify people about the cameras, while the policy states that officers are “required only if asked.” In chaotic crime scenes, the coalition believes officers should notify individuals of the recording at the earliest possible safe opportunity.
The policy also states that police officers can review the video before they write their incident reports, but the coalition argued against this.
“This is a definite ‘no,’” said Rachel Kent, executive director of the Peace and Economy Project and a coalition member. “We all know that memory can be very fluid and it can change. Right now the law is based on the officers’ perceptions. Did an officer reasonably perceive that he was in danger?”
Kent said it’s important to have both accounts – the video and the officer’s perceptions. She also said that the public would not have the opportunity to review the video before submitting their incident accounts, and this would give preferential treatment to the officers in the case of a discrepancy.
The discipline measures for not turning on the cameras are not clearly defined, she said, and they should be. The coalition also recommended that a third-party governmental agency store the footage and manage access requests for both the public and police.
As far as public access to the video footage, ACLU of Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman said that the department should follow the same rules that are stated in the Missouri Sunshine Law. According to the law, information is not open to the public until after an investigation is completed. And just as names and private information are blacked out on incident reports, faces and other identifying information should be blurred out in the footage for anyone not charged of a crime, he said.
“I think that ACLU brought some good points about making sure that the public has more say so in the process,” said Chris Carter, alderman of the 27th Ward. “It did seem like the chief brought this policy out of nowhere.”
Activist John Chasnoff said the coalition has been trying to get a copy of the department’s policy since November. In response to his Sunshine Law request that he submitted in November, the department said that they didn’t have a written policy on the cameras yet and no emails had been exchanged internally regarding the cameras.
He renewed his request in early December once the program began and received a copy of the policy on January 12. Soon after, the coalition then held town hall meetings with the community to discuss the department’s policy. From the citizen input, the coalition drafted its recommendations. Recently the coalition provided the aldermen with an informational sheet that compared its stance on certain aspects of the body camera program with the police’s policy. In some areas, they agreed with Dotson’s policy and in others they differed.
Chasnoff said the aldermanic committee had planned on holding a hearing in last fall but postponed it. The coalition recently asked the aldermen to reschedule the hearings. Public Safety Committee Chairman Terry Kennedy, alderman of the 18th Ward, then asked Dotson to present the policy before the committee on March 3.
The pilot program ends this weekend, according to a department spokeswoman, and Dotson will now evaluate the officer surveys they’ve gathered. She also said the evaluation process will include public input but did not elaborate on how Dotson planned on engaging the community. The department has no set date for when they will officially begin using the body cameras, she said.
Alderman Antonio French of the 21st Ward believes that the board should pass an ordinance instead of having only an internal policy on body cams.
“The police chief can change the policy at any time,” French said. “So if you get a new chief, you get a new policy.”
Many cities pass ordinances, he said, because it allows the public to weigh in.
“I prefer an ordinance,” Carter said. “I think it’s better to have us set things in stone because we will make sure we put people first.”
Follow this reporter on Twitter @RebeccaRivas.