So where has Alvarez’s office been here? In December, Alvarez called the lack of audio in the Laquan McDonald video “frustrating” but added that “that’s something I believe the Police Department has to address.” For good measure, she said, “we would prefer to have the audio.”
That’s it? “We would prefer to have the audio”? At minimum, intentionally destroying dash-cam equipment is destruction of public property. You could argue that it’s also tampering with or destroying evidence, particularly if there’s proof that it was done after a shooting or other major incident. Alvarez tried to imprison a woman for recording the alleged harassment she received from police while attempting to file a report alleging sexual assault by another police officer. But when cops tamper with evidence of a police shooting of an unarmed man, all she can say is that it’s “frustrating” and that she’d “prefer to have the audio”?
Alvarez is apparently only somewhat frustrated that what appears to be a significant portion of the Chicago PD — who, let’s not forget, are government employees given the power to detain, arrest and kill — is openly and brazenly defying laws and policies aimed at holding officers accountable and keeping them transparent.
But it isn’t just Chicago. In April 2014, the Los Angeles Times ran a similar story about the Los Angeles Police Department.
Los Angeles police officers tampered with voice recording equipment in dozens of patrol cars in an effort to avoid being monitored while on duty, according to records and interviews.An inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found about half of the estimated 80 cars in one South L.A. patrol division were missing antennas, which help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed.LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and other top officials learned of the problem last summer but chose not to investigate which officers were responsible. Rather, the officials issued warnings against continued meddling and put checks in place to account for antennas at the start and end of each patrol shift.Members of the Police Commission, which oversees the department, were not briefed about the problem until months later. In interviews with The Times, some commissioners said they were alarmed by the officers’ attempts to conceal what occurred in the field, as well as the failure of department officials to come forward when the problem first came to light.
Emphasis mine. So the city’s police chief learned that dozens of cops were deliberately sabotaging equipment intended to keep them accountable but chose not to investigate. Don’t the residents of Los Angeles deserve to know which cops committed the sabotage? What might their actions say about their credibility on the witness stand or how much credibility we should put in their reports when those reports are contradicted by witnesses or suspects? A crafty police chief might have seen the tampering revelations as a handy way to identify officers who should be watched closely for other signs of abuse. Instead, police officials tried to sweep it all away.
As we’ve discussed here in the past, this sort of thing is disturbingly common.
- When University of Maryland student John McKenna was beaten by police after a basketball game, the surveillance camera that should have been pointing at the area where the incident occurred had been turned off. Fortunately, the confrontation wascaptured by numerous students on their cellphones. The officer in charge of the cameras just happened to be married to one of the officers later disciplined for McKenna’s beating.
- In 2007, a TV reporter and her cameraman filed a lawsuit alleging they were assaulted by several police officers in Prince George’s County. During discovery, the county claimed that all seven dash-cams at the scene of the incident had coincidentally malfunctioned.
- In 2010, an appeals court judge in Texas noted that curiously, in a high percentage of cases in which a DWI suspect had challenged the charges, dash-cam footage of the traffic stop had gone missing. “At some point, 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,” she wrote.
Let’s get real here. The notion that most of these incidents are honest mistakes simply defies credulity. These are deliberate attempts to destroy evidence, as are the countless incidents in which police have destroyed cellphone footage of arrests, beatings and other confrontations later resulting in allegations of abuse. But the courts long ago determined that when evidence goes missing in a criminal case, the defense must prove ill intent on the part of police or prosecutors. That’s a nearly impossible standard.
The hot trend in the police reform debate right now is body cameras. And it’s true, there have now been several studies now showing that body cams reduce assaults on police officers, use-of-force incidents and the number of complaints filed against police. But when it comes to writing the laws and policies that come with body cameras, the stories above ought to be instructive. A transparency tool that can be turned on and off, tampered with or rendered useless with no consequences for the police officer doing the tampering isn’t a transparency tool at all. It’s a tool that can save an officer from false allegations (which, of course, is a good thing), but that does little to protect the public from officers prone to abuse.