Another Police Accountability Miracle: Five Officers, Zero Body Cam Footage, One Dead Body
from the back-the-blue...-into-a-corner dept
We know body cameras haven’t been the police accountability godsend some imagined they would be. (I admit I saw a far rosier future when they first started being put into service.) So far, the research jury’s still out on the effectiveness of cameras in deterring misconduct and excessive force deployment. And, so far, they’ve been far more useful to prosecutors than plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits.
You can put a camera on a cop but you can’t change the system that leads to abusive behavior and practices. Nothing’s changing much for officers other than the attachment of a lightweight ride-along. Policies may require officers to activate their cameras in nearly every situation, but if no one’s willing to hold them accountable for refusing to do so, then nothing’s going to improve.
Since law enforcement agencies maintain control of equipment and recordings, there’s not much the public can do when critical footage goes missing. Cops learned early on device tampering can reduce discrepancies in paperwork and shore up lies delivered as testimony. What went unpunished when it was just dashcams and body mics has continued forward to swallow the accountability body cams seemed to promise.
For the Albuquerque PD, destroying recorded evidence is allegedly just part of its daily duties. A former contractor employed by the department claimed officers and supervisors routinely altered or deleted body cam footage. It’s a serious allegation. And it assumes there’s even footage to alter. In the case of the Mary Hawkes, a 19-year-old woman killed by an Albuquerque PD officer in 2014, there was no footage to be had when her family’s attorney Laura Ives asked for it.
The narrative provided by the PD when asked what happened to the footage that could possibly have been captured by the five officers on the scene is literally unbelievable. It’s a chain of coincidences the world’s worst novelist would have been ashamed to hammer together to hold a flimsy story together. Five officers. Zero useful footage of a shooting by police officers that resulted in a person’s death.
The sergeant on scene, Brian Maurer, said he believed he turned his camera on during the incident, but the department later said he hadn’t recorded anything. In his deposition, the sergeant testified that his camera had never malfunctioned like that before.
“Never malfunctioned like that before.” Unlucky that. But that leaves four officers…
There was another officer who was standing nearby when the shooting happened. He originally said he hadn’t seen the shooting at all. But when confronted with the only images of the shooting that we have — very vague footage from an officer’s lapel camera who was parking his car at the time of the shooting — it was clear that this officer lied about not seeing the shooting.
What did get recorded by this officer (who can be seen pointing a gun towards the shooting victim in the 10 seconds of captured footage) wasn’t even enough to fill the camera’s default buffer. Taser body cams create a rolling 30 second buffer that’s retained when cameras are activated. The reason this officer only had 10 seconds is because he shut his camera off. That’s according to the APD itself. Rolling buffer defeated and 20 seconds of footage that would have captured the shooting is now nonexistent.
That leaves three officers.
Yet another officer could have captured important footage of the shooting, but his recording was so heavily pixelated it was impossible to glean anything from the images. No one in the department had ever seen footage corrupted like this before, and APD claimed that this was the result of yet another malfunctioning camera.
The fourth officer said he was recording on his Scorpion camera at the time of the incident, but there was no video on his camera’s SD memory card.
The official excuse here? Another “malfunction” right during the critical moments of a shooting. The APD kept the “malfunctioning” camera in service which went on to live a full and useful life capturing random cop events without another malfunction.
One officer left. And this is the one who actually shot Mary Hawkes.
He claimed that his cord had come unplugged. The department sent his camera off to Taser for analysis, and Taser found that the camera had been powered on within 8 minutes of the shooting, but was powered off in the moments before.
Taser examined the camera and said it was possible a loose cord could have powered it down. It also said it could have been turned off with the power switch. The cord was damaged but did not affect the camera’s functionality.
Only a couple of the cameras that mysteriously malfunctioned during the shooting were examined by the PD or Taser. None of the cameras were preserved so they could be inspected by experts to see if the issues could be duplicated or if any footage could be obtained from the “faulty” cameras. The cameras all went back into service despite having proven to be utterly useless when it mattered most.
So, is it likely all of these officers conspired ahead of time to ensure there was no usable record of this shooting? Of course not. These events unfold quickly. And what likely happened is far more nefarious than a conspiracy. All of these cops — independently — recognized the developing situation to be the sort that might result in damaging recordings. And they all acted independently to ensure nothing of value to anyone outside of the force was saved.
These five simultaneous “malfunctions” are the product of a corrupt system that values the lives and careers of cops above all else, even the lives of the citizens they’re supposed to serve. This is an ingrained mindset that circles the wagons whenever officers’ actions might be called into question. When a citizen gets killed, it’s a cop’s word against the victim’s. And the victim can’t say shit. The only thing that might leak some inconvenient truths are the body worn tattletales. They might upend the official bullshit scrawled across department paperwork after everyone involved has agreed on a narrative.
That’s the way it works. That’s the nastiness of US policing. It’s the uncanny ability of multiple officers to act defensively in support of their careers while in the middle of a situation so very dangerous they need their guns drawn. They’ll defend questionable decisions in court by claiming they had no time to think about what they were doing, but they obviously have enough of a self-preservation instinct to ensure nothing but the official narrative survives an officer-involved shooting.