Police cameras are great, except when the video goes missing

Police critic Will Grigg stitches together a series of news stories to construct an infuriating narrative from Utah.

When Mark Byrge had a minor traffic accident on a street in American Fork, Utah, he did the “responsible” thing by reporting the incident to the police. He has never stopped paying for that mistake.

Within a few minutes of receiving Mark’s call, a pair of American Fork cops arrived to document the damage to Byrge’s delivery truck from a collision with a tree branch that protruded into the street. Mark was cooperative – and he put up no resistance when the lead officer, Andres Gianfelice, placed him under arrest for an outstanding traffic ticket (as well as citing him for not providing proof of insurance).

Byrge . . . made a single request of his captors: Owing to several back surgeries and the implantation of a $50,000 Spinal Cord Stimulator (SCS), Mark asked that the officers cuff him in front.

While explaining his condition, Mark very slowly and carefully lifted his shirt in order to display an iPod-sized rectangular lump in his lower right back.

Neither Mark’s cooperation nor his explanation made an impression on Gianfelice.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job – put your hands behind your back!” barked Gianfelice, instructing his trainee officer, Jennifer Nakai, to apply the cuffs. Before being shackled, Mark called his wife Tina to tell her he was being arrested.

He didn’t disconnect the call – which means that Tina was able to hear everything that would happen over the next several minutes.

Despite the fact that he was obviously in pain, Mark placed his hands behind his back. Local resident Bob Cardon, on whose property the untrimmed tree was located, expressed concern over Mark’s treatment.

“Do you really have to handcuff him that way?” the elderly man asked the officers.

“Shut up, or you’ll be put in the car next to him,” snarled Gianfelice.

Byrge says Gianfelice then pushed into the squad car and pushed him up against the seat, which Byrge says destroyed his medical device. According to medical scans of the device taken later, it stopped functioning while Byrge was in Gianfelice’s custody. The device had been implanted to treat chronic pain in Byrge’s leg. When it stopped functioning, Byrge’s leg began seizing. Gianfelice apparently took this as a sign of resisting, and so subjected Byrge to more abuse.

The police are, of course, denying any wrongdoing. That’s not surprising. But here’s the kicker: Grigg notes that in 2007, the American Fork police department boasted to the media of being the first department in the country to outfit all officers with body cameras and microphones. A spokesman for the department told the Salt Lake Tribune that year, “We’ve been waiting. We’ve been looking for something like this to document the good work that police officers do.” But as Grigg explains, apparently not the bad:

There were three wired officers involved in the encounter with Mark Byrge – Gianfelice and his trainee, Nakai, and their supervisor, Sgt. James Bevard. The officers either suffered an inexplicable simultaneous failure of their VidCam units, or they didn’t bother to activate them. Nor was a dashcam recording made by either of the police vehicles on the scene.

There’s much more to the story, and I’d encourage you to read Grigg’s’ entire post.

This isn’t the first time a police camera has malfunctioned at a critical time. I wrote about several other incidents in a 2010 article for Reason.

In the College Park case, a campus police surveillance camera was pointed at the area where Jack McKenna was beaten. But there’s no security video of the incident. Campus police say the camera coincidentally malfunctioned at the time of the beating. A local news station reported that the officer in charge of the campus surveillance video system is married to one of the officers later disciplined for McKenna’s beating.

This is not the first time a police camera in Prince George’s County has malfunctioned at a critical time. In 2007 Andrea McCarren, an investigative reporter for the D.C. TV station WJLA, was pulled over by seven Prince George’s County police cars as she and a cameraman followed a county official in pursuit of a story about misuse of public funds. In a subsequent lawsuit, McCarren claimed police roughed her up during the stop, causing a dislocated shoulder and torn rotator cuff. McCarren won a settlement, but she was never able to obtain video of the incident. Prince George’s County officials say all seven dashboard cameras in the police cruisers coincidentally malfunctioned.

Last March, Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot of the Second Court of Appeals in Texas complained in a dissent that when defendants accused of driving while intoxicated in Fort Worth challenge the charges in court, dash-camera video of their arrests is often missing or damaged. “At some point,” Dauphinot wrote, “courts must address the repeated failure of officers to use the recording equipment and their repeated inability to remember whether the car they were driving on patrol or to a DWI stop contained the video equipment the City of Fort Worth has been paying for.”

Generally, it’s a good thing that police departments are moving toward outfitting cops with body cameras and microphones. But there should be some policies in place to prevent abuse. There should be strict privacy policies to prevent leaked video that could embarrass or harm private citizens. And in cases where there should be audio or video that would corroborate one side or the other, and due to no fault on the part of the citizen there isn’t, there should be a presumption in any ensuing litigation that the audio or video would have corroborated the citizen’s account of the incident. That would seem to be a good incentive to make sure that the audio and video are both on, and that both are properly preserved.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · March 26