Denver Cops Cave on Body Cameras for Off-Duty Officers

Earlier this month, we noted that the new Denver Police Department body camera policy didn't require off-duty officers to wear the devices despite a recommendation from the city's Independent Monitor, Nicholas Mitchell.

The rationale offered by the DPD: The cost of outfitting off-duty officers with body-worn cameras, shorthanded as BWCs, as well as storing all of the video they accumulate, would outweigh the benefits.

Two weeks later, the department has reversed course, much as it did when questioning Mitchell's math about how many use-of-force incidents had been recorded (or not) by officers who took part in a body-camera pilot program last year. During reported questioning from Denver City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman about BWCs for off-duty cops, Denver Police Chief Robert White announced that such officers would be required to wear the cameras after all.

Moreover, the department subsequently confirmed the policy shift, which was backed by the city's Citizens Oversight Board in a letter sent to Mayor Michael Hancock and city council members.

The text of the DPD's response, originally shared with the Denver Post, is on view below. But first, let's look at the reasoning in favor of BWCs for off-duty officers as featured in the Independent Monitor's 2014 annual review, also shared here.

According to that document, there were eighty uses of force that took place during the BWC test period, and 22 of them, or more than 25 percent, involved off-duty officers. Since the latter weren't outfitted with BWCs, the incidents went unrecorded unless there were other cameras in the vicinity.

In addition, the report describes three incidents involving off-duty officers that were complicated by the decision not to provide them with BWCs. Here's that section of the report:
• On July 4, 2014, an officer normally assigned to Distrct 5 was working off-duty on the 16th Street mall when he observed a large fight and attempted to intervene. One combatant continued to fight, despite the officer grabbing him by his arm and commanding him to sit down. The suspect resisted by pushing back against the officer, who then struck the suspect's leg with his baton. The officer was not equipped with a BWC, and none of the responding, on-duty officers activated their BWCs. The investigating supervisor was able to obtain HALO footage of the incident, but concluded that it was dark, grainy and taken from fairly far away, making it impossible to determine individual actions.

• On July 26, 2014, an officer regularly assigned to District 2 was working off-duty at a bar downtown when he was contacted by security regarding a heavily intoxicated patron who refused to leave. During the encounter, the patron's brother reportedly became aggressive and was pushed onto a set of stairs by the officer. The officer was not wearing a BWC, but video of the event (without audio) was captured by a HALO camera. The citizen who was pushed to the ground subsequently filed a complaint against the officer, alleging that inappropriate force had been used against him. That complaint was investigated and is currently under review.

• On October 18, 2014, off-duty officers were working an event called "The Zombie Crawl" ont he 16th Street mall when one officer observed two males fighting. As the officer tried to separate the individuals, a mass of people gathered to watch the fight. When the two men did not stop fighting, the officer deployed his OC spray. Bystanders, including two children, were allegedly affected by the OC spray and some members of the crowd grew hostile. The officer was off-duty and not wearing a BWC. Although the incident was captured by other surveillance cameras, they were distant, had no audio, and only captured the initial deployment of OC spray, and other officers responding to the scene activated their BWCs but did not capture the use of force. The father filed a complaint alleging that inappropriate force was used towards both him and his children, and due to inconclusive evidence, the force allegation was not sustained.
The second of these happenings — the one that took place on July 26 — involved Officer Choice Johnson, who was subsequently given a thirty-day suspension for his actions in the case. The other party was 29-year-old Brandon Schreiber.

However, an appeal-hearing officer later determined that Johnson's suspension was unjust and called for the officer to receive back pay for the time he was ordered off the job. The City of Denver responded by appealing the decision to the full Civil Service Commission.

Such developments provide a compelling backdrop for Mitchell's call for off-duty officers to wear body cameras despite the larger price tag.

"While considering costs is certainly important, we encourage the DPD to also consider the fiscal benefits that might accrue if supervisors and officers working off-duty are equipped with BWCs," the aforementioned report states. "This could include costs associated with litigation and Internal Affairs investigations, both of which may be made more efficient, or avoided altogether, with footage supplied by BWCs."

At first, the DPD didn't seem persuaded by this line of thinking. But in the face of city council questions and the Citizens Oversight Board letter, Chief White moved in a different direction. The department's e-mail on the topic reads:
Chief White and the Denver Police Department are in favor of officers who are working in a off-duty capacity wearing body worn cameras. He believes that the off-duty camera program and policy have to be implemented in a thoughtful and responsible manner. There are several logistical concerns we are going to have to consider and work through, but we are committed to making it happen.

The total financial commitment is still being evaluated. The program included in our current proposed budget would provide body worn cameras to 800 patrol officers, and the devices cannot be shared with other officers due to logistical limitations.

We estimate it will cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000 to provide body worn cameras to all remaining officers for use when working in an off-duty capacity. We also estimate it will cost approximately $330,000 each year for the next four years to maintain the off-duty camera program for these non-patrol officers. Again, I stress that these are preliminary estimates and may change.
Presumably, the city council will allot the extra money in the hope that BWCs for off-duty officers might prevent the sort of payoffs members have authorized in recent years over so many excessive-force incidents.

Look below to see a 2014 Denver police video about body cameras, the Independent Monitor's 2014 report and a document that synopsizes the findings.

Office of the Independent Monitor 2014 Annual Report Final

Denver Body Cameras Analysis Report March 2015

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts