Atlanta police routinely failed to turn on body cameras, audit finds

UPDATE: This story has been updated with a quote from Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

In 2016, when Atlanta city officials announced that police officers would begin wearing body cameras, they promised the devices would bring more transparency to law enforcement and build trust with the community.

But a new city audit out this week found a systemic breakdown that undercut those goals as Atlanta police officers routinely failed to turn the cameras on or officers shut them off during incidents. City auditors also found officers deleted videos when they weren’t authorized to erase them and mislabeled videos that undercut efforts at accountability.

The audit concluded that Atlanta police are using body camera’s in manner that risks creating distrust among the public.

“I am not happy with it,” said Atlanta Police Erika Shields said in an interview Monday. “But I’m not surprised. I knew that what we are asking of officers is a culture shift."

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Atlanta’s City Auditor’s Office conducted the review at the chief’s request. Shields said she wanted to document how widespread the problems were so she could begin to address them.

As of May, nearly half the department’s 1761 sworn officers were assigned body-worn cameras while on duty. The cameras are attached to the chest area of a uniform by a strong magnet. The camera captures video and audio and is turned on by pressing a button the front of the device.

Shields said her department had disciplined officers for failing to follow department policy on body cameras.

The discipline most often occurs when a complaint has been lodged against an officer and “the camera footage is not there.”

“What you are going to see from our end is more proactive discipline as a result of our internal audits,” Shields said.

The audit looked at a random sample of 150 videos from officers’ body cameras. In more than half the cases, officers failed to activate and deactivate their cameras at the required time, the audit said.

Officers also miscategorized 22 of the videos, including a use of force incident. Auditors said mislabeling the videos may have led to some being deleted prematurely.

And the audit said that officers failed to capture two-thirds of dispatched calls between November 2017 and May 2018.

In 2016, as calls for police accountability intensified in Atlanta and across the country, then-Mayor Kasim Reed announced the new body camera program, saying it "will strengthen trust among our officers and the communities they serve by providing transparency to officer interactions."

But the audit said the consistent violations of policy jeopardized those aspirations.

“The Atlanta Police Department’s officers risk the potential loss of evidentiary data and public trust by failing to consistently use body cameras to record interactions with the public,” the audit said.

The audit not only found problems with the use of the camera’s, but also with how videos were deleted.

Auditors identified 64 videos “that were deleted by users who should not have had been authorized to delete videos from the system” from November 2016 to 2018.

Officer use-of-force incident videos are supposed to be handled differently. Supervisors are supposed to upload them and they to be labeled properly in case the department or the public needs to review them later.

But the audit found APD supervisors routinely didn’t understand their responsibilities. One zone supervisor told auditors he was unaware that it was his job to upload use of force videos.

Overall, only one percent of nearly half a million videos uploaded between November 2016 and May 2018 were categorized as use of force incidents. Officers, not supervisors, uploaded 67 percent of the videos categorized as use of force.

Department officials told auditors administrative sergeants would start auditing each zone’s performance every couple weeks to ensure officers properly recorded and labeled videos.

A recent software upgrade will automatically upload videos to a cloud, streamlining the process and improving compliance, Shields said.

“We as a department need to tell people what we expect from them,” Shields said. “And we are going to lay out very clearly what we expect them to review, how many, and have them report out what they are finding.”

In 2014, body cameras became a hotly debated topic nationwide after the unrest in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Protesters and police clashed for days after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. There was no police video of the incident and eyewitness accounts varied widely. When a grand jury declined to indict the officer, dozens of buildings were burned and damaged throughout the area.

Advocates of body cameras argue that they protect the public from police misconduct and protect police from false allegations.

In May, body camera footage exonerated a Texas state trooper accused of sexually assaulting a woman he had arrested on suspicion of driving drunk. But the next month, an Athens-Clarke County officer was fired after he hit a suspect with his patrol car and a police body cameras captured the incident.

Research on the effectiveness of body cameras is mixed. A 2017 study by the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas showed that cameras reduced use of force incidents and reports of officer misconduct.

But a study that same year by the Lab @ DC, a research team in the office of Washington D. C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, showed that officers with body cameras used force at the same rate as those without body cameras. There was also no difference in the number of misconduct complaints.

Body Camera Facts:

  • The Atlanta City Council approved the purchase of 1,200 body cameras for $5.6 million in August 2016.
  • Atlanta Police Officers began wearing them in late 2016.
  • Roughly 800 of the city's sworn officers wear them as of May of this year.
  • Police Chief Erika Shields requested the City's Auditor review whether officers were following department policy.
  • An audit out on Monday said most of the time officers didn't use the cameras properly.