Video cameras on street corners and in public spaces, license plate scanners on police cars, drones overhead, and other new technology increasingly enable the recording of our everyday behavior -- a web of surveillance that some find discomforting and an overreach by the government. But given the nature of police work involving interaction with the public, and with crime suspects, the growing use of body-worn cameras by police officers to create a clear record of events that could be called into question later has generated little criticism in Menlo Park.
When the Menlo Park Police Department bought body cameras for all officers about a year ago, it also worked with a citizen advisory group to create a protocol for use of the recorders -- a positive and encouraging move on the part of Police Chief Bob Jonsen. But the Nov. 11 killing of a burglary suspect by three police officers, a shooting for which no video exists because none of the officers turned on his camera, has exposed serious shortcomings in the implementation of a potentially beneficial program.
Chief Jonsen told the Almanac that the camera policy is under review in the wake of the shooting. Backup cameras have already been ordered to address an obvious program shortcoming: One of the officers involved in the shooting wasn't wearing a camera because he had turned it in for repair and no backups existed. But the question of when the cameras should be activated is of key concern in light of the fact that two camera-outfitted officers who arrived on the scene of a "suspicious person" call failed to turn the recorders on until after the shooting, despite the fact that the reporting party stated that the man looked like a burglary suspect pictured on a flier.
In explaining the failure to activate the cameras, Chief Jonsen noted that, among other reasons, officers work 12-hour shifts, but the cameras' batteries have only three-hour charges. That still doesn't explain why officers aren't instructed to activate the cameras immediately upon being dispatched to a call, particularly considering that even a "suspicious person" call is likely to result in contact with one or more people. Interaction with the reporting party is just as important to record as a potential encounter with a criminal.
The department policy on the cameras states that the officers "shall activate the recorder during all on duty contacts with citizens," although they shouldn't jeopardize their safety in doing so. Given that a police officer never knows what might be waiting for him or her at the arrival point of a call, it makes sense to turn the camera on before pulling away from the curb to respond to the call.
The chief said his department is also considering buying batteries with longer capacity. Doing so would be a wise move, but one must wonder why the department purchased the original equipment a year ago with such an obvious shortcoming, given that officers are on duty for 12 hours at a time.
Mayor Ray Mueller noted in an interview with the Almanac that if the police department is going to have the cameras, "there needs to be a consistent policy that they're just on, you leave them on. You never know when a life-threatening situation, or any situation, is going to happen." He added that the appropriate path ahead is policy refinement and training, which the public has a right to expect after the failure of the current system to produce a video record of an episode that resulted in one man's death, and, with multiple shots fired, could have turned into an even more tragic event.
Mr. Mueller said he has "every confidence that the chief will address (the matter) well." The public will be watching and hoping that the mayor's confidence is well-placed.