In the wake of the Ferguson unrest — and after years of questionable police-involved shootings in South Florida — the Miami Police Department began equipping its officers with body cameras in late 2014. The cameras, officials promised, would lead to more transparency and better policing.
But new records obtained by New Times show that dozens of the Miami cops outfitted with body cameras either haven't been using them to record incidents with the public or aren't uploading the footage to the department as required.
The problem was recently discovered by the city's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), a police oversight board. And most troubling, the news comes just two months after the police department announced it had been awarded a $960,000 grant from the Department of Justice to equip the rest of its patrol officers with body cams. To obtain the grant, the city pledged an additional $400,000 of taxpayer money.
"Why are we spending over $1 million on something that the department is treating as a joke?" says CIP member Danny Suarez, an outspoken critic of MPD. "I hate to sound critical about the cameras — I want them to be utilized — but our department is obviously not utilizing them."
The issue came to light last week when the panel received an audit of the body cameras after making a public records request. Because the CIP is often asked to investigate claims of a he-said, she-said nature, director Cristina Beamud says she was hoping to nail down a list of which officers were using the body cameras. That way, when a complaint about one of those officers came to CIP, investigators would know to request footage from the incident.
But when she looked at the results of the audit, Beamud was stunned to see that over a two-week period in November, the 82 officers with assigned cameras had uploaded only 36 hours of footage. Sixty-three of them had uploaded zero hours of footage.
"Any mechanical thing can malfunction, but when you see this many zeroes in terms of what's being uploaded, it's unlikely that the machine is malfunctioning," Beamud says.
It's unclear whether the officers with zero hours of footage didn't activate their assigned cameras during the two-week period or whether they simply didn't upload the footage. Beamud has asked for an explanation from George Wysong, an assistant city attorney who represents the police department, but says he hasn't yet provided one.
MPD policy dictates that officers with body cameras record all interactions with civilians. It further mandates that the footage
"We have to contact each supervisor to provide an explanation for why no videos were downloaded," he says. "Of course there's concern of why didn't you use the equipment you were issued to use. I'm concerned. I just need to know what really happened."
MPD seriously considered body cameras for the first time in 2014, when the department was approached by researchers at the University of South Florida. USF wanted to study police usage of the cameras, but Llanes says the study required voluntary participation of at least 50 officers. Because of resistance from the police union, however, he couldn't come up with 50 officers who wanted to participate.
In a March 2015 interview with the ACLU, Llanes said his department was participating in the USF study, but that wasn't true. He now tells New Times he might have confused the interviewer and should have explained that the police department was moving forward with its own mandatory-body-camera pilot program because so few officers were willing to participate voluntarily.
(Update 5:30: Julia Dawson, the author of the ACLU piece, backs up Llanes' contention that he didn't explicitly say Miami PD was participating in the USF study. She says she conflated the Orlando study with Miami's own internal study when writing the story.)
Llanes says the department now has about 100 body cameras, which have been assigned to members of the motorcycle squad and the department's Problem Solving Team. The DOJ grant would help provide up to 640 more cameras by 2019.
Although an investigation of the audit's findings is still underway, Llanes says some of the officers included might have been reassigned, thus explaining the lack of recordings. But the records show that none of the 14 sergeants on the Problem Solving Team (PST) had uploaded even a minute of footage in two weeks.
Llanes says they might have been engaged in administrative duties or could have arrived at crime scenes once things were "static." (The department's policy, which was excoriated in a recent review by two national civil rights groups, doesn't require officers to record themselves while writing reports or discussing cases with other officers.)
"I don't believe that zero is a good number, but I'd have to take a look," Llanes says.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The CIP's Suarez finds that explanation ludicrous.
"I've seen PST in action," he says. "The sergeants are out there, as well as doing the groundwork."
Though MPD's policy doesn't require regular self-audits to identify which officers aren't using their cameras or uploading the footage, Suarez says he will continue to request that information from police.
"This is troubling when you have PST doing all these stings and these guys are not using [the cameras]," Suarez says. "It's baffling that it's allowed to happen."