Police and the public trust:
In wake of high-profile incidents involving officers and civilians, legislation focuses on transparency, accountability
In April of last year, Wisconsin lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation bill with new standards on how local law enforcement must handle investigations that involve the death of a civilian by an on-duty police officer.
The legislation, AB 409, didn’t get much national attention at the time.
But a few months later, after high-profile incidents involving the death of a 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., and the acquittal of a New York police officer in the death of an unarmed African-American man, Wisconsin’s actions were being held up as a national model.
Recent concerns about officer-related deaths, and the investigations that follow, have resulted in much legislative activity in state capitols in 2015 (see below) — calls for an increased use of police body cameras, for example, and new rules for how violent incidents are handled, investigated and publicly reported.
But as timely as the new Wisconsin law now seems, it was, in fact, many years in the making.
“We have been working on this for a while,” says Sen. Lena Taylor, the Senate author of AB 409, “and I consider it progress to have the legislation we do.”
Details on Wisconsin’s new law
The new requirements resulted not only from the work of legislators, but from the advocacy of family members as well.
One of those advocates was the father of Michael Bell, a 21-year-old who died in 2004 after getting into a scuffle with police officers in the Wisconsin town of Kenosha.
Bell was returning from a night out with friends when police stopped him.
Police say Bell was resisting arrest. Bell’s father, who received part of a $1.75 million civil rights lawsuit settlement, says his son was murdered by overzealous officers.
He spent more than $850,000 on billboards, newspaper ads and commercials questioning whether police officers should be allowed to investigate other officers involved in the death of a civilian.
The money and time he spent raising awareness about the issue helped lead to last year’s passage of AB 409.
Under the new Wisconsin law, police departments must have a written policy on officer-involved deaths. As part of that policy, at least two outside investigators must be brought in to handle these
Internal investigations are still allowed, but they cannot interfere with the work of the outside investigations.
The new law also provides clearer assistance to victims’ families: They must be informed of their legal rights, for example, and be told how to file complaints and pursue charges if they don’t agree with the decision of a local district attorney. Lastly, the investigation of an officer-involved death must be publicly reported if it does not lead to the prosecution of an officer.
The new Wisconsin law was soon put to use.
Seven days after it was enacted, a young man asleep in a park was approached three times by officers. While the first two engagements ended without incident, the third officer to approach Dontre Hamilton got in a struggle with the young man, who was shot 14 times and killed.
The officer has since been fired, but no charges were filed because local prosecutors determined he had acted in justified self-defense.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation served as the outside investigator in the case.
Some further tweaking of the new Wisconsin law might be needed, Taylor says. She also wants more mandatory training for police on cultural competency and how to better interact with people suffering from mental illness.
Proposals to follow Wisconsin’s lead
This year, legislation modeled after Wisconsin’s law has been introduced in several states, including Illinois and Minnesota.
“It is about providing transparency to people and helping police do their jobs better. ... [It is] for the 99.99 percent of police that do their jobs well,” says Illinois Rep. Christian Mitchell, the sponsor of HB 221. “It also helps those in the community know that police are indeed on their side and working to protect them.”
He also believes the measure strikes the right balance between accountability and autonomy for local law enforcement. The accountability, he says, comes from the requirement that outside investigators be brought in to handle officer-involved deaths. But beyond these broad parameters, each local law-enforcement agency can establish its own rules and procedures.
In Minnesota, legislative proposals (HF 543/SF 466) would require the state to develop a model policy on the investigation of officer-involved deaths. The minimum standards would be similar to those in Wisconsin’s new law. Local law-enforcement agencies would then be required to adopt standards similar to the model policy.
“We haven’t had the problems in Minnesota that Wisconsin has had that was the impetus of that law,” explains Rep. Tony Cornish, sponsor of HF 543, adding that all but two departments in the state turn over these cases to outside investigators.
Still, he believes a statewide requirement for outside investigations is good public policy, one that makes sense for police departments and the communities they serve.
Police body cameras focus of new bills
Along with exploring how local investigations should be handled, state legislatures are taking a closer look at the merits of police body cameras.
Would their use, for example, lessen the chance of violent encounters between police and civilians? Would they enhance investigations and help improve public trust in police?
In some local police departments, officers already have begun to use body cameras, and at the federal level, President Obama has proposed a three-year, $75 million matching-grant program for states and localities.
In advocating for this new federal investment, Obama has cited evidence that police body cameras not only strengthen accountability and transparency, but that officers and civilians act in a more positive manner when a camera is present.
But Jim Bueerman, director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Police Foundation, cautions that not enough research has been done to come to any definitive conclusions on the value of police wearing body cameras while on duty.
He notes that proponents of these cameras often cite a study done of police-civilian encounters in the California town of Rialto. After a year, the study found, Rialto officers wearing the cameras had almost 90 percent fewer uses of force and almost 60 percent fewer complaints against them.
“That is highly suggestive that body-wear cameras can have great value in reducing force and complaints,” Bueerman says. “But that is one study, and you can’t really generalize the findings to other situations.”
Use of cameras raises privacy questions
For legislators, police body cameras also raise a number of other policy questions — above and beyond whether they are worth the investment.
For example, which law enforcement officers, if any, should be required to wear body cameras? When do the cameras have to be turned on? How long do police agencies have to retain audio and video from body camera recordings? Who has access to the recordings? Who pays for the cameras and for the data storage?
Some bills introduced in the Midwest this year try to begin addressing some of these issues.
In North Dakota, HB 1264 would exempt police body-camera images from the state’s open-records requirements, giving local law enforcement discretion on what audio and video can be withheld from the public. Under current law, any communication with a public entity or official relating to public business must be released upon request.
Cornish, meanwhile, has proposed legislation in Minnesota to limit public access to the camera footage; only law enforcement and the subjects of the video could view it.
“There are basically no laws governing [the use of body cameras],” he says, explaining that under current Minnesota law, anyone can now request to view hours of video. “I want to protect citizens so they are not seen on the Internet on the worst day of their life.”
A separate Minnesota proposal (SF 754) would impose a statewide moratorium on police body cameras until May 2016. This delay would give legislators time to study what measures should be put in place to balance privacy, the public’s right to information, and concerns about the length and amount of data retention.
Conversely, Kansas’ HB 2137 would require all state, county and municipal law-enforcement officers to wear body cameras while performing their duties.
Under the legislation, the cameras would have to be continuously activated, with some limited exceptions — if the officer is engaged in a personal matter, for example, or if a person asks the officer to turn off the camera before entering a residence on a non-urgent matter.
Video and audio would have to be retained for at least two weeks (longer for incidents involving force). No state funding is provided in the Kansas bill; instead, the measure instructs law enforcement agencies to seek funding from the federal government or other public and private sources.
In Kansas’ largest city, Wichita, some officers have been using body cameras since 2011. To date, the department has about 60 cameras, and last August, the department decided it would set a goal of equipping each of its approximately 500 police officers with a body camera by the end of 2015.
The initial cost for the purchase of 444 additional cameras and equipment is about $927,000, and the police department expects to pay for it through grants and various funds within the department.
The cost of the ongoing training, storage and employees to process the data is estimated at about $350,000 per year.
“It’s not inexpensive,” notes Robert Layton, Wichita’s city manager, “and anything that can be done at the state or federal level to help offset these costs would allow us to maintain existing service levels.”
For nearly 10 years, Illinois has had a grant program to expand the number of dashboard cameras on police cars in communities across the state. Fees and fines imposed for certain criminal or traffic offenses are used to fund the program. Under SB 710, introduced earlier this year, local governments could use the grant money to purchase body cameras.
The legislation would also set certain standards for the use of these cameras. They would have to be turned on whenever an officer is dealing with a member of the public, and data from the video would have to be kept for at least two years.
In addition, law enforcement personnel, local state’s attorneys and any individuals in the video would have a right to access it.
Bueerman, who worked for a local police department in California for nearly 33 years, says an increased use of body cameras is not the only policy that local law enforcement and states should be considering. Other ideas include:
Statewide reporting on officer-involved shootings (see sidebar article above).
Training on “implicit bias,” a formalized way for individuals to understand their subconscious judgments, attitudes and beliefs.
Putting less-lethal tools in the hands of police, such as pepper spray, pepper balls, bean-bag guns and electronic control devices.
Ensuring all officers have had training on how to de-escalate situations, especially those involving people who suffer from mental illness.
Obama seeks body-camera funding; task force offers ideas for “21st century policing”
In the wake of the officer-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the White House in December called for $263 million in funding for police body cameras and training. Under the proposal, which requires congressional approval, a total of $75 million would be provided over the next three years to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras. To receive federal dollars, states or localities would have to provide 50 percent of the funding to buy the cameras.
President Obama also created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which released its initial findings in early March. The group’s recommendations include many ideas being considered in state legislatures (see main article above). For example:
require external, independent criminal investigations and prosecutors in three types of cases: officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths and incidents in which an officer’s use of force ends in death;
provide more training to police on how to de-escalate volatile situations and how to use less-than-lethal technologies;
establish local serious-incident review boards (made up of law enforcement and community members) to review officer-involved shootings; and
require police agencies to report data to the federal government on all officer-involved shootings as well as any in-custody death.
In late 2014, the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed HR 1447 (the Death in Custody Reporting Act), which requires police departments to report deaths in police custody to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The report must provide demographic data, give the circumstances surrounding the death, and disclose whether the death occurred in police custody or during arrest. The U.S. attorney general must then study the information and develop ideas to reduce the number of deaths that occur during police custody.