When Police Officers Turn Off Video Cameras, They Cast a Shadow of Doubt

By Wayne Krause
Legal Director
Texas Civil Rights Project

As summer approaches, an APD officer has shot another young person of color. We don’t yet know all of the details of how or why Nathaniel Sanders was killed, but there is one thing we are sure of already, and it is inexcusable: there is no video from the shooter’s police car.

How can there be no video?! Is it not APD policy to turn on the camera when an officer might come into contact with a dangerous individual or make an arrest?

APD Policy A306b mandates that police car videos record at all traffic and pedestrian stops, sobriety tests, and pursuits. APD cars are equipped with video cameras, so why aren’t officers using them?

Time after time, Austinites are forced to endure tragic incidents of APD brutality in which the actual events are shrouded in an air of impenetrable mystery. It doesn’t have to be this way. Not only do pictures tell a thousand words, but video cameras don’t write false or biased reports to protect themselves or their partners.

With violent officers such as Michael Olsen and Gary Griffin, we all now know how video cameras expose lies about what really happened on the scene. Having represented victims of these police attacks, I am certain they never would have found justice without having a videotape as evidence.

But for every case I’ve accepted, there are dozens I have not because the video backed up the officer’s account or at least showed some understandable reaction. If an officer acted reasonably on the scene, turning the camera on is her insurance policy. So why wouldn’t there be a tape?

We hear the excuses: the tape was lost, I forgot to turn it on, and so on. None of them ring true. If you’re an officer doing your job right, you want that camera on.

During the death of Jessie Lee Owens, four of the five officers who eventually arrived at the scene had video proof of their actions. The one that didn’t was the shooter, so we’ll never know what really happened.

The bottom line is if there is a shooting, but no video, we are left with nothing but the perception that the officer wanted it that way for a reason.

If the APD seriously wants to put an end to this problem, it will actually begin punishing officers who violate its video policy and it will ensure that video recorders are in working order. When is the last time an officer got more than a slap on the wrist for refusing to turn the video camera on? And if police supervisors, who are required to check the cameras regularly, can’t or won’t keep them running well, we should appoint a neutral, competent employee to do so.

Video cameras are a window to truth, and officers who turn them off cast a shadow on that truth and their profession. If we have cameras, they should work. And if you won’t do your job, you should be fired, or at least suspended for as long as your victim remains horizontal. Until that happens, it will remain a sad irony that our citizens who run red lights have a better chance of being caught on video than those shot dead.

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