Sergeants to Get Body Cameras Despite Denver Police's Initial Opposition

It's starting to become a pattern.

First, the Denver Police Department announced that it didn't want to assign body-worn cameras, or BWCs, to off-duty officers even though the Office of the Independent Monitor strongly recommended that it be done, In the end, however, the DPD caved.

Likewise, the department argued against making sergeants wear BWCs — but this week, Denver Police Chief Robert White told a Denver City Council committee that he'd changed his mind about that, too.

There are no shortage of reasons for White's shift in the annual report from Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell, issued earlier this year and shared below.

The document counted up eighty uses of force that either occurred in District 6 during a pilot program last year or involved District 6 officers operating outside their official geographic boundaries. However, 35 of the incidents weren't recorded because they involved off-duty officers or sergeants and other supervisors who weren't told to wear BWCs.

The DPD disputed the monitor's use-of-force total. Nonetheless, more than 40 percent of incidents included in the report weren't recorded for these two reasons.

Here are a trio of examples from the report regarding use-of-force matters that weren't captured because of the no-BWCs-for-sergeants edict; they took place over a period of less than two months. Note that the second incident wasn't recorded by an involved officer, either.
On September 7, 2014, District 6 officers, including one sergeant, responded to a report of an individual running through an alley and screaming. The individual climbed a fire escape of a condominium building, grabbed a rock and threw it through the window of a unit and then went inside and hid in an upstairs loft. The officers entered the unit and a sergeant attempted to communicate with the suspect from a spiral staircase leading to the loft. A few minutes later, the man came towards the sergeant holding a chair, and the sergeant deployed his Taser. Other officers were ultimately able to take the man into custody. Of the four officers other than the sergeant who were identified in the use of force report, one captured footage of the incident on his BWC, one captured only the first thirteen minutes (up until the physical confrontation) due to an apparent equipment issue, one stated that his BWC was not functioning due to a fault cord, and one was a recruit and therefore not issued a BWC. The sergeant who deployed his Taser was also not issued a BWC.

On October 15, 2014,, District 6 officers were conducting a covert operation when they contacted an individual who they believed was wanted in an "attempt to locate" order. A sergeant arrived to provide cover, and while checking the suspect for warrants, the sergeant grew concerned when the suspect shoved her hands in her pockets and began acting nervous. He patted her down, felt a long, slender object, and searched her pockets for a weapon, instead finding a crack pipe. When the officers attempted to arrest the woman, she "turtled up," pulling her arms away to resist handcuffing and dropping to her knees. The District 6 officer who initiated the contact was wearing a BWC, but stated that he did not activate it due to "rapid evolving circumstances and the need to provide immediate cover to other officers."

On October 28, 2014, a District 6 sergeant observed a suspect tagging a traffic signal controller box with a marker and approached him, grabbing the suspect's arm. After a foot chase, the suspect stopped and turned toward the sergeant, taking a fighting stance and balling his fists. The sergeant reportedly deployed "mace" and the suspect began throwing punches at the sergeant. To gain control, the sergeant struck the suspect five to seven times in the head with a closed fist. The sergeant was not equipped with a BWC, and a HALO camera captured only the first part of the chase, and not the physical altercation between the sergeant and the suspect.

The DPD's disinterest in ordering off-duty officers or sergeants to don BWCs was based on the cost of the extra equipment, not to mention file storage and the like. But the report suggests that such penny-pinching is short-sighted. 

"While considering costs is important," it reads, "we encourage the DPD to also consider the fiscal benefits that might accrue if supervisors...are equipped with BWCs. 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."

White's switch doesn't mean the last kinks in the BWC program have been smoothed out. Another issue involves uploading footage from the cameras. The devices chosen by the DPD don't automatically upload to cloud storage; a docking station must be used. As noted by the Denver Post, requiring off-duty officers to return to the station to upload footage would require the city to pay them overtime — but buying everyone a docking station for his or her home would cost around $250,000.

Then again, if camera footage prevents even one multi-million dollar settlement by proving that nothing problematic took place, the devices will pay for themselves many times over.

Look below to see the City Council committee meeting at which White announced his policy change — the key moment takes place just past the 24 minute mark — followed by a 7News piece on the development and the Independent Monitor report.

Office of the Independent Monitor 2014 Annual Report Final

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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