After a stream of controversial police-involved killings, most large forces have adopted body cameras to help monitor their own cops. But in the scramble, critics say many departments have begun using the equipment without enacting the rules to properly use them. When Miami Police started testing body cameras in 2014, the department's union chief, Javier Ortiz, called the program "haphazard" and a "free-for-all," according to the Miami Herald.
Two national civil rights groups agree with Ortiz. In a study released today, the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, as well as a nonprofit called Upturn, released a study analyzing body-camera programs in 50 departments.
Both City of Miami and Miami-Dade County Police, which began using body cameras in April, were given failing grades. The departments' rules might let cops turn off cameras during critical moments or even encourage them to tamper with footage, the group warns.
The study analyzed each department's written "body-camera policy" and graded each in terms of how clear, concise, and comprehensive each was in eight categories. Departments were judged, among other things, on whether they properly stored and disposed of video data, whether police adequately protected footage from tampering, and whether citizens were able to access the footage when they file complaints against police. No department received a passing grade in all eight categories.
The study absolutely flunked some departments, including Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed in 2014. Disturbingly, Ferguson Police failed all eight categories. (Former Miami Police Public Information Officer Delrish Moss became Ferguson's police chief in May.)
Miami Police, meanwhile, came close to failing all eight categories. The study hit the department for failing to make its body-camera policy available to the public online and for not laying down enough rules for when officers are allowed to turn off their cameras while on-duty.
"While the policy clearly defines when officers must use their [body cameras], it does not require officers to provide concrete justification for deactivating during or failing to record required events," the study said.
The study also faulted Miami Police for not protecting victims "from being recorded without informed consent," because department policies do not force cops to tell subjects when the cameras are rolling.
Miami-Dade County Police, meanwhile, fared only slightly better. Though MDPD posts its policy online, that's the only passing grade the study gave the department.
The study said MDPD's policy also has some serious privacy concerns. "Miami-Dade PD also has no policy that requires officers to inform subjects that the camera is recording," the civil rights groups said.
Likewise, MDPD cops are allowed to turn off their cameras when discussing "matters of a personal nature" with victims, but those exact matters are not defined.
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The study hit both departments for allowing cops to review footage immediately after a controversial event. This, the groups said, encourages cops to tamper with evidence.
Additionally, neither department explicitly makes body-camera footage available to civilians who file complaints against police.
MDPD spokespeople did not respond to New Times' messages seeking comment about the study. A Miami Police spokesperson said the department is still reviewing the study's findings and could not comment.
"Departments that have a strong policy in one area often falter in another," the study said. "Every department has room to improve."