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Why Not?: OperationBodyCam GR opens up a community conversation

Darel Ross speaks at a city council meeting.

What does the national trend towards police body cameras mean here in Grand Rapids? It's a measure that finds almost universal favor among civil rights advocates and citizens from a range of backgrounds on Internet comment threads and in community meetings. But dig deeper, and the pros and cons of the technology get murkier. Rapid Growth's managing editor Stephanie Doublestein spent a night in a patrol car on a ride-along with the Grand Rapids Police Department last month, interviewed both Chief Rahinsky and those behind the recent community initiative OperationBodyCamGR, and attended this week's Grand Rapids City Commission meeting to help you understand what the growing call for body cams means here in our city.

This week, partly in response to the ongoing protests and conversations coming out of events in Ferguson, MO, President Obama announced federal funding for 50,000 new body cameras for police departments across the country. Chicago and Philadelphia both announced their intention to roll out body cam programs within 60 days.
 
What does the national trend towards increased police surveillance mean here in Grand Rapids? It's a measure that finds almost universal favor among civil rights advocates and citizens from a range of backgrounds on Internet comment threads and in community meetings. But dig deeper, and the pros and cons of the technology get murkier. In the last few weeks, I spent a night in a patrol car on a ride-along with the Grand Rapids Police Department last month, interviewed both Chief Rahinsky and those behind the recent community initiative OperationBodyCamGR, and attended this week's Grand Rapids City Commission meeting to help you understand what the growing call for body cams means here in our city.
 
"We've opened up a community conversation."
 
Darel Ross is co-executive director of LINC, the community revitalization organization behind OperationBodyCamGR, which made its presence known at the city commission meeting on Dec. 2. Before speaking to a standing-room-only forum, Ross explained to me where the idea came from.
 
"We wanted to figure out a practical next step we could take locally and this is what we heard from the community," he says. "This is just a simple step the city commission can take in short order which will increase transparency and increase trust with the GRPD."
 
Ross says the technology is there and has proven results. "The study shows that not only does the behavior of the police improve, but the behavior of the people getting arrested improves."
 
Jeremy DeRoo, LINC's other co-executive director, says, "I think body cams are one more tool in the tool belt . . . Having the camera available is just one more way to get an accurate picture of what's going on."
 
The dozens of residents who spoke to the commission at Tuesday night's meeting echoed Ross and DeRoo's comments – and provided both personal anecdotes and research to support their unanimous requests for body cams. Indeed, one oft-cited study out of Rialto, CA shows that use of force by officers declined by 50 percent, while complaints against officers also declined notably when police began wearing body cams.
 
"We're not saying body cams are a solution to bad policing in the city of Grand Rapids," says Ross. "We're saying since there is good policing in the city and since they (body cams) exonerate more people than they indict, our question is why not."
 
GRPD Chief David Rahinsky chats with community members.

Why not?

 
It's a common refrain, and one I heard again when GRPD Chief David Rahinsky addressed a room full of Leadership Grand Rapids members a few weeks ago, before the Ferguson verdict had been announced. Rahinsky brought the topic up himself by asking, "How many of you are in favor of body cams?" Virtually every hand in the room shot up, which probably didn't surprise Rahinsky. I spoke with him one-on-one about the issue just before Tuesday's meeting, and I reminded him of that encounter.
 
"My concern is that your gut instinct is, sure: transparency, checks and balances," he says. "I've been doing this for 30 years and I can think of instances that are problematic. We want to be comfortable that it doesn't violate the sense of privacy you want to have in your own home."
 
As an example, Rahinsky wonders how he would have felt, while raising his children, if someone had called the police on his home to report a loud party where juveniles were being served alcohol. "While I wouldn't have minded law enforcement coming and doing their job, I ask myself how I would feel if it had been recorded, and then my neighbor wanted to view it. I don't feel good about it. So there are answers to these questions; we just haven't found them yet because the questions are just now being asked."
 
Rahinsky's concerns largely center around privacy, security, data storage, and the way the footage would be accessible under the Freedom of Information Act. "Would we record juveniles? Would it only be people who give consent? What would we exclude from protocol – sexual assault? Domestic violence? . . . Often when (people) call the police, they're at a low point in their lives, and if that encounter is going to be recorded, saved on a server or some type of government computer and subject to public records request, the public needs to have that conversation before we move forward with the technology."
 
Those behind OperationBodyCam don't disagree. "We're advocating for thoughtful policy, that the police work with the commission and community groups," says Ross, when I ask about privacy concerns. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater."
 
DeRoo says best practices for camera use are emerging, pointing out that the ACLU has endorsed body cams as well as made policy recommendations on ways to use them effectively while balancing both transparency and privacy. In a statement, ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg says, "The ACLU supports the use of body cameras for the purpose of police accountability and oversight, as long as there are privacy policies preventing them from being used for systematic surveillance of the public. Body cameras can be a win for both the public and officers by simultaneously deterring police misconduct and protecting officers against unwarranted accusations of abuse."
 
What the data says
 
When I ask Rahinsky whether he's a "no" or a "not yet" on body cams in Grand Rapids, he clarifies that he simply has "more questions than answers" and says he's been doing his due diligence, reading the available research, and listening to different members of the community. (Rahinsky was in attendance at Tuesday's commission meeting as well.) When I ask what the data says about the departments that have implemented body cams, he sends me a 60-page report that summarizes the known academic studies on body cams. (And yes, I read it.) 
 
Entitled "Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence," the document, by Michael White, PhD, references data from five empirical studies, the Rialto, CA study being one. The document lists four discrete benefits commonly associated with body cams: increased transparency and increased citizen views of legitimacy of the police force; increased opportunity for feedback in police training situations; better behavior among both officers and citizens; and higher percentage of resolution of citizen complaints and better evidence for lawsuits. Of these, only the two latter benefits have been proven in the studies cited.
 
The document also lists four common concerns associated with implementing the technology: concerns about citizen privacy with regard to religious sensitivity, intimate searches, witnesses and informants, victims, and legal confidentiality; officer privacy concerns; requirements around training and policy development; and costs associated with technology acquisition, data storage and management, and replacement costs.
 
The document affirms that "human beings change their behavior when they are observed" and summarizes its findings thusly: "Although advocates and critics have made numerous claims regarding body-worn cameras, there have been few balanced discussions of the benefits and problems associated with the technology and even fewer discussions of the empirical evidence supporting or refuting those claims." It recommends proceeding with caution, and calls for more independent research on the issue.
 
So though one in six departments across the nation now use or are about to use body cams, research is scant and the policy doesn't seem to have caught up to the technology. Some state and federal laws still prohibit warrantless capture of video or photos where people have an expectation of privacy, and some police unions where body cams have been mandated (NYPD and Las Vegas PD) have threatened lawsuits, saying use of the cameras changes the scope of the working conditions. The ACLU policy calls for continuous recording during a shift of every interaction with the public as well as for good privacy policies, including retention of video for just weeks in most cases, though Steinberg admits that the legal ramifications of all this video data haven't been fully explored.
 
"If you have somebody who reports a domestic violence incident and the officer comes to the home and is recording her . . . you don't want it to be a situation where people are afraid to make a complaint because they don't want their (injured) face and sobbing to be put on YouTube." He gives as another example a citizen who makes a complaint about a gang member: "If the gang can get access to this, the person's dead and nobody is going to be making complaints." Steinberg speculates that there may have to be some sort of amendment to FOIA as body cams become more prevalent. "We think body cams are a good development, but there must be strict policies balancing privacy of citizens with the important oversight function that cameras can serve."
 
Power, perception, and public safety here in Grand Rapids
 
Amidst these many legal and logistical unknowns, I'm reminded of a situation I witnessed a few weeks ago right here in Grand Rapids while on a ride-along with a GRPD officer as part of the Leadership Grand Rapids program. Here's what I wrote about it at the time:
 
"A CPS employee has requested back-up at an apartment complex; the employee is going to try to talk to "mom" about the violent incident between mom and dad earlier in the day that landed both of them -- and their four-year-old daughter -- in the hospital with injuries. We're waiting to meet her in the dark apartment parking lot and the officer is telling me there was a homicide here last year, that this is also the place where a woman stabbed her boyfriend to death a few months ago. I can see televisions flickering in each of the apartment windows, and I ask whether it's safe to assume that behind each of these doors is a weapon, and the officer says yes, probably. He says these are the calls that can take a turn, situations that start out calm but then you're talking about removing a child from the home, or maybe the dad is back in the apartment and still angry that the mom called the cops in the first place, and you never know how things are going to turn out. It's the first and only time I feel afraid that night."
 
It seems like exactly the kind of situation that nobody has quite figured out how to address. It involves a minor, a domestic disturbance, and emotionally charged citizens in their own home. Would policy dictate that the body cam be turned off to protect the privacy of the minor child and the domestic violence victim? Or would this be just the kind of situation where a body cam could be key in recording an encounter that has the potential to escalate quickly? And what if one of the family members was an elected official or a celebrity, someone about whom the public was very curious?
 
Rahinsky asserts that the issues being raised are about more than just camera technology. "The public is looking at it as a panacea and it's not," he says. "How do we improve trust? How do we become more integrated in the community we serve? Intellectually and emotionally, recording everything in every interaction may be a band-aid but doesn't necessarily build trust."
 
Ross sees it in a slightly different way. "If you're looking at the overall criminal justice system, it has historically bred mistrust between the minority community and police officers," he says. "When situations like Ferguson erupt, everybody is compelled to ask why, and leaders should ask what should have been done differently. If a body cam had been there, wouldn't it be nice to actually have data and truth be the common denominator?"
 
Tied up in all of this are issues of power, perception, and public safety – not to mention systemic racism, implicit bias, and trust that erodes each time a black youth has a negative encounter with a white officer. One after another, citizens who spoke to the commission on Tuesday night raised issues ranging from a lack of diversity on the GRPD force to mothers whose children fear their neighborhood police, from having been harassed due to skin color to asking for increased scrutiny of the GRPD's use of deadly force. I can't ignore the fact that every officer I met on the night of my ride-along was white; every citizen we interacted with, black. Many spoke of the need to transform the system as a whole, which is a goal of Rahinsky's as well.
 
"Holistically, we're a whole city. We need to police every neighborhood the same so everyone feels the same safety as I do when I leave my house in the morning," he says.
 
"This moment is full of opportunity," said City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss, who acted as chair of the Tuesday meeting, at the conclusion of public comment. Bliss ended by setting a formal public hearing on the subject for Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. at City Hall, as well as a date of Jan. 13 for the city manager to make recommendations on future policy actions on the matter.
 
"Are we gong to be leaders when it comes to policing or are we going to be behind the 8-ball and do it five years later when it's mandated?" asks Ross. "Let's be in front of this, be innovative, do the things that make Grand Rapids a great city for everyone."
 
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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