Why Have Some of KPD’s Dashcam Recordings Gone Missing?

In Cover Stories, News by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

A patrol car’s dashcam video recorder rolls as Knoxville Police Officers load a man into a paddy wagon bound for the county jail. While the cruisers’ dashcam records automatically during police stops, issues with memory storage and downloading the footage has plagued the department.Clay Duda

A patrol car’s dashcam video recorder rolls as Knoxville Police Officers load a man into a paddy wagon bound for the county jail. While the cruisers’ dashcam records automatically during police stops, issues with memory storage and downloading the footage has plagued the department.

This is one story in a two-part series examining the KPD. This week: KPD accountability, KPD’s Internal Affairs Unit, and KPD’s problems with dashcam technology. In our Jan. 14 issue: KPD’s community relationships. 

Americans are uncomfortable with being watched. We react with outrage about government domestic spying or the possibility of drones breaching our privacy. Yet we love watching. We love the unexpected cell phone camera footage on YouTube and the way conflicts unfold before our eyes on reality TV shows—page views and TV ratings prove it.

But the eye of the camera changes what it observes. Would you act differently at your computer if you knew your boss was watching? What if your boss and America was watching, and your job had a lot more riding on it than too much time on Facebook?

Policing is one of those jobs. Cameras in police cars and on uniforms are generally seen as a stabilizing force. When Knoxville wanted to increase trust in the police after a string of shootings in the late 1990s, dashboard cameras and lavaliere mics were a big part of the answer. Many police departments today have taken it a step further by adding body cameras following police killings of unarmed black suspects.

The Knoxville Police Department is still struggling just to make the cameras they have work.

What happens when the eye of the camera blinks?

In a handful of cases this year, KPD dashcam recordings were missing or corrupted, leaving no footage of confrontations in which citizens claim they were profiled or manhandled by police. The lack of video evidence affected the outcome of some prosecutions.

“When they lose audio and video, black people say, ‘There they go again lying to us.’ So if they could be more transparent, it would help,” says Joe Kendrick, executive director of Knoxville Community Step-Up. The group seeks to keep black men from the cycle of jail.

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch says the missing recordings are caused by outdated technology, not a conspiracy.

The police department has recently adapted some of its policies to cope with the problem, even as it considers updating its existing equipment and adding body cameras, too.

The Current System

KPD dash cams can hold about 10-12 hours of video, says Gary Holliday, deputy chief and division commander for support services. Cameras make two kinds of recordings. The first are “background recordings,” which shoot two frames a second and include metadata like the time and location. Holliday and Rausch say KPD’s use of background recordings is extremely unusual, gathering more information than any other law enforcement agency they know.

“We do it for transparency,” Rausch says.

Real-time video, which takes up more memory, is supposed to start automatically when a cruiser’s emergency equipment is activated or when an officer switches on the recorder as he heads to a call. Officers are also supposed to turn on their audio microphones when they speak with a member of the public.

Sometimes they forget. A sampling of personnel files shows these failures often result in a “counseling form” (a pre-disciplinary measure) or reprimand.

The video is stored on secure digital memory cards locked in the cruiser’s console. Only supervisors have the keys to access the recordings or turn the recorder completely off, Holliday says.

Footage can be downloaded either manually by a supervisor, or wirelessly when cruisers pull into one of three locations. Wireless download is supposed to start automatically when a car gets close, but the system is five years old and isn’t fully equipped to handle the newer cameras in many cruisers, Holliday says. (This is the third generation of recording infrastructure for KPD in the last 17 years. Individual car cameras are updated as cars are replaced.)

As a result, the wireless system can download from a limited number of cars at once. When there are more, as at a shift change, then some (read: a lot) of the video won’t download. Even when it does, it takes an hour for eight hours of footage to transfer, so officers often only get a quarter of their video downloaded at a time, Holliday says.

“In most of the cases with missing recordings, the dashcam filled up,” Holliday says.

That’s what Rausch says happened in a case involving drug charges against Isiah Devon Holloway, who was pulled over for speeding in 2012 by Officer Richard Derrick White. White claimed he could smell “raw marijuana,” not being smoked, in Holloway’s console. The dashcam video might have shown whether White had probable cause for searching the car, but police discovered White’s dashcam hadn’t been recording for weeks.

Police information officer Darrell DeBusk says White believed a frayed cable in the car might have been part of the problem. “The cable was replaced and the DVR inspected, but ultimately the cause of the missing video was the full memory card,” DeBusk wrote in an email. However, Holloway’s attorney, Mike Whalen, says that he requested paperwork showing the unit had been repaired, and he was told it wasn’t because it was “never broken.” The News Sentinel reported that a KPD technician at a hearing testified the dashcam had never been inspected or repaired.

“The implications are the injustices that flow out of an unregulated system,” Whalen says. “As law enforcement, the response should be, ‘We will investigate, get the answers, and fix the problems,’ not, ‘Hey, looks okay to me.’ That’s always a wrong response because it holds you to a lesser standard than your citizen.”

Whalen says he understands that although real-time recording starts when a police car’s blue lights come on, the officer can push a button to end it. (Holliday confirmed this, although the system will continue recording background video.)

“My case was not about interrupted video, but who determines who’s pushing that button when,” Whalen says. He also argues someone should have noticed the absence of video sooner.

Until the last few months, supervisors were supposed to check “regularly” to make sure recorders were downloading, Rausch says. In this case, that obviously wasn’t happening.

Now they are supposed to check daily, Rausch says.

Holloway was acquitted of a drug-free school zone charge but convicted of a lesser felony possession charge.

White’s partner, Thomas Turner, was also involved in several arrests with no dashcam footage when he pulled over black suspects for minor traffic violations (in one case, “fuzzy dice” obstructing the driver’s view) and ended up searching them.

A high-profile example involved Brandon Allen Foxx, whom Turner blue-lighted for illegally-tinted windows—before calling a K-9 unit. After Foxx allegedly fought officers, his leg was shredded by dog bites. Dashcam footage could have demonstrated whether Turner had probable cause to detain Foxx until the K-9 arrived.

Instead—for the second time—a judge dismissed Turner’s charges against Foxx due to searches deemed legally questionable. In September, Knox County General Sessions Judge Charles Cerny ruled that Turner had violated Foxx’s constitutional rights and dismissed charges of felony cocaine possession, resisting arrest, and assault. The News Sentinel also reported that the judge criticized KPD for inadequately training officers about citizens’ rights.

Rausch emphasizes his support for Turner and says he thinks Cerny misinterpreted two Supreme Court cases cited in his ruling. “He was applying standards to that (traffic) stop that weren’t applicable,” Rausch says.

KPD blamed the missing dashcam footage on a technical glitch, but to an extent it was actually human error: According to department policy, when force is used, the officer involved is supposed to immediately call his supervisor to come physically remove the dashcam recording from the car.

In the Foxx case, the incident happened close to police headquarters, so Turner drove there to meet his supervisor, Rausch says. The dashcam had started wirelessly downloading when his supervisor removed the memory card, corrupting the files, he says.

Rausch says no one has gotten in trouble for the missing recordings.

Attorney Scott Lanzon, who represented Foxx, declined to speak about the case.

But Whalen says White and Turner, who attended the police academy together and started at KPD in 2011, need some “very serious scrutiny.” He finds the chief’s support of them troubling. “What that says to these two and anyone else paying attention is, ‘Chief’s got our back. We can do whatever we want to,’” Whalen says.

Equipment Upgrades and Body Cams

Dashcam recordings can’t be erased from inside a police car, Holliday says. After they are downloaded, Rausch says only an engineer can alter or erase them. Every 90 days, records that haven’t been flagged for use of force or for use as evidence are transferred onto Blu-ray discs and kept locked in the technical services department, Holliday says.

But Rausch says the whole wireless infrastructure needs replacing. “Clearly we’re in for an upgrade,” he says. “The delay, quite frankly, has been because of body cameras.” Holliday began talking with an engineer in November about a system that might integrate new dashcam infrastructure with body cameras at a potential cost of $3.5 to $4 million. Rogero said in a prepared statement that she approved Rausch exploring the option but she awaits his recommendation before taking a position on body cameras or the expenditures.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 68 percent of local police departments were using dashcam video recorders by 2013, and about a third were using body cameras. But that number is believed to be growing rapidly since last year’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. set off a national furor. This May, the Department of Justice announced its plan to provide $20 million in grants to help purchase body cameras for local law enforcement agencies, part of President Barack Obama’s effort to buy 50,000 law enforcement body cameras over three years.

Rausch has said he doesn’t favor body cameras unless the Legislature changes Tennessee open records laws to limit how much of the footage is public. It’s all public under today’s law.

“What we don’t want is to see my own interaction with someone inside their home become a YouTube video,” Rausch says. He says the police and district attorney should decide when there is a public benefit to releasing the recordings.

He says he’s hopeful that lobbying by law enforcement associations will lead to change in the law this winter, paving the way for KPD body cameras. (Rausch says he’d be willing to wear one.)

The Knoxville Sheriff’s Department is in the process of buying body cameras for its deputies, but—as at many agencies—these will come at the expense of discontinuing dashboard cameras.

Rausch says he won’t give up dashboard cameras. He argues that more often than not, recordings help officers by proving citizen complaints unfounded. And the camera has a calming influence on suspects, as the footage has become important evidence of crimes from DUI to resisting arrest.

“People are automatically assuming officers have changed their behavior because they know they’re on camera,” Rausch says. “The officers haven’t. The people have changed their behavior.”

At the same time the cameras were installed in police cars, the city created a Police Advisory Review Committee (PARC), a group of citizens who act as a watchdog over the police department. From the beginning, the group monitored KPD’s installation and use of recording devices. The videos often show officers using admirable restraint when berated by citizens, says Rosa Mar, who serves on PARC’s audio-visual committee. Malfunctioning recording equipment has not been a factor in cases she’s heard since being appointed to PARC about a year ago. She was unfamiliar with White and Turner’s missing dashcam recordings.

“It does raise red flags, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an intentional situation,” she says. Still, she adds that the recording equipment needs to be checked and double-checked.

“That requires time and money, and we need to make sure we have that,” she says.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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