Ruben Rosario, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
August 21, 2015
(TNS) — How good are police officers — or anyone else, for that matter — at accurately reporting pertinent details after a stressful encounter, including one where force was used?
Well, there’s room for improvement, according to a recent study that compared what the officer wrote in a report with video of the incident captured by a body camera.
The study, funded by Taser International and published in the Journal of Law Enforcement, found that participating officers committed numerous errors in their written reports that “could have led to, at a minimum, challenges to the officer’s credibility, successful pursuit of an excessive force complaint, or dismissal of charges.”
Of course, the company, which makes body cameras and has a vested interest in winning contracts and making a buck off them, could easily be accused of biased study methods and results.
Still, its findings are hard to argue against: body-worn cameras, among other benefits, improve the accuracy of written reports that usually play a critical role in a high-profile case.
“With cameras becoming ubiquitous, it is the opinion of the authors that it would be better for the LEO (law enforcement officer) to have the opportunity to address any inconsistencies in the original report rather than years later in a federal civil rights trial when memory is even more likely to be rife with errors,” the researchers state in the study.
One of the chief researchers and authors of the study is Dr. Jeffrey Ho. A professor of emergency medicine at the University of Minnesota, Ho also serves as Hennepin County Medical Center’s medical director. He holds the same title as a consultant for Taser International. His research centers on the impact of weapons systems and other technology on human performance and safety. As if he doesn’t wear enough hats already, Ho is also a licensed peace officer and has worked part-time for a decade as a sheriff’s deputy in Meeker County.
“Documentation from human memory is fallible,” Ho told me this week. “Memory isn’t like a video. It’s more like snapshots separated by time and then going back to fill in the blanks. And that’s when errors are made.”
Ho also stressed that the study, though limited, was aboveboard, regardless of his ties to Taser.
“What we found is that the use of body-worn cameras, regardless of the manufacturer, will improve the accuracy of reports.”
Eleven sworn law enforcement officers from five agencies in the Phoenix metro area took part in the study.
The cops were “dispatched” to three back-to-back scenarios; a domestic disturbance, a traffic stop and a report of a theft at a parking lot.
The officers were fitted with a Taser camera attached by magnets to a pair of eyeglasses and positioned on the officer’s gun side to closely parallel his or her field of vision.
The use of force involved a domestic squabble during which a man pushed a woman to a couch and then simulated what is described as a “turtling” action — clasping his hands in front of him to prevent officers from handcuffing him. A dummy whose hands were tied to mimic the action was then used by the officer to perform the use of force.
The other scenarios included a traffic stop during which the driver and passenger were mildly uncooperative and a report of a theft at a parking lot. The officers were instructed to write incident reports, then view the video, and, if they wanted to, amend the reports.
ERRORS BIG AND SMALL
In all, the researchers reported that the officers’ initial written reports contained 27 errors or omissions that ranged from minor to serious.
The study found that the largest number of errors was with “quotations and other statements important to the case, such as commands from the LEO.”
Two errors included omitting a use of force. Four others involved failure to document verbal warnings to suspects.
Surprisingly, none of the officers reported a gun that was lying in plain view on the ottoman during the domestic disturbance. None observed the female victim placing the weapon in her waistband. Eight of the 11 officers failed to report a third person in the room during the incident.
Two officers did not report nine individual uses of force captured by the cameras. According to the researchers, all the officers commented that the recordings helped improve their report-writing abilities. All but one favored watching the video as they are writing out the reports, though they expressed concerns that it would take longer.
The report notes that the study was conducted in a simulated, controlled environment. A real-world situation where fatigue, stress and exertion and other factors come into play, “when coupled with a report that is missing or contains erroneous important use-of-force details, may lead to important, and possible catastrophic consequences for LEOs in legal proceedings that can occur years after the event.”
COP’S STATE OF MIND CAN BE CRITICAL
But such devices are not infallible observers. They can be knocked off during a struggle, as happened to one officer in the study. Their positioning is critical. Officers may forget to turn them on in an incident that starts out as a non-threatening scenario but suddenly escalates into one.
There is also the human element that a camera cannot capture — what goes through the mind of an officer during a high-stress, real-world situation where he or she has to decide in seconds whether to use lethal force. Many times the key issue is not what occurred in a shooting or what was captured in a video but what the officer reasonably considered in his or her mind was a threat to himself or others that ultimately led to the use of force.
Still, other studies on BWCs have demonstrated their direct and indirect benefits in everyday policing. Perhaps one of the more cited reports involved a police agency in Rialto, Calif., whose officers were fitted with body cameras. During that year, the department found that use-of-force incidents by officers dropped 59 percent. Moreover, use-of-force complaints by civilians dropped by 87 percent during the same time period studied.
IT’S A CAMERA WORLD
I sent the study to Burnsville police Chief Eric Gieseke. His department began using body-worn cameras in 2010 at the suggestion of a use-of-force instructor and not because of a controversial incident. The devices have ranged from clumsy and problematic headband types whose cables easily disconnected to modern, self-contained and wireless chest- and upper torso-mounting ones that are more reliable and provide a better point of view.
“I applaud them doing this,” said Gieseke. Of the department’s 75 sworn officers, 55 wear them. Gieseke said most are the boots-on-the-ground, front-line patrol contingent. When warranted, they view the videos to help write reports.
“The majority of them like them,” he said.
Whether we like it or not, we are living in a Big Brother world where cameras are everywhere — from the stores we shop in, to the public streets we walk, to the places where we work. If cops are not recording, then there’s a good chance — given the millions of smartphones out there — that a bystander or witness is recording the incident. The use of body-worn cameras by most officers in the future is no longer a question of if but when, though sticky issues involving protocol, privacy rights and other legal and legislative hurdles need to be resolved.
“I know this well,” Gieseke said. “That’s why I believe this (BWC) is a win-win for everyone — the police and the community.”