Keeping an eye on cops
City seeks to disable recording gear
Lost in a brouhaha over recording equipment that can’t be turned off in Springfield police interview rooms is a fairly basic question.
What advantage is there to having a recording system that can be switched off?
That police cannot turn off recording gear installed in interview rooms 10 months ago would seem to discourage officers from engaging in wrongdoing while also shielding police from false allegations of brutality. It is not a theoretical issue, given that Officer Chuck Redpath, Jr., son of Ward 10 Ald. Chuck Redpath, was suspended for 15 days in 2010 after beating a suspect in an interview room. Interview room beatings also have happened in Chicago, where police have tortured suspects until they confessed, and Milwaukee, where an officer beat a suspect in 2013.
Grant Barksdale, head of the police union, says officers don’t object to constant recording, so long as everyone knows it’s happening. “We don’t see any issue with that whatsoever,” Barksdale says. Kelvin Coburn, chairman of the city’s Police Community Review Commission, also favors 24/7 recording. “Not being an officer, I would imagine you really would have to question the motives of the people who would want to turn it off,” Coburn says. “The recording would protect officers as well as citizens who are not police.”
Nonetheless, Axon, which sold the gear to the city, is working on a way to disable 24/7 video recording in the police department’s five interview rooms where suspects are interrogated, according to a Dec. 5 report to the city council from Roger Holmes, the city’s inspector general.
Holmes got involved when police discovered that equipment had been recording 24/7 in the department’s interview rooms. A minor uproar ensued, with the city asking Axon to figure out a way to turn the recording equipment off. Constant audio recording already has ceased, Holmes says, and the company is working on a program that also will allow video recording to be disabled.
The Axon system has a feature that allows police to turn off both audio and video recording if a defense attorney wishes to speak privately with a client. That feature, according to Holmes’ report, always has worked.
Holmes says that constant recording came as a surprise to the salesman who sold the gear to the department. But the Axon website, in pitching the technology, says that the system works around the clock: “Stream interviews from anywhere on your network, and capture moments of key dialogue thanks to its 24/7 buffer, which can store weeks of continuous audio and video to local storage.”
That, according to Holmes’ report, is exactly what happened in Springfield, where around-the-clock footage was stored by the city’s computer system for 45 days before unneeded footage was automatically erased.
Police brass were slow to catch on, according to Holmes. After a technology specialist concluded in October that the recording gear couldn’t be turned off, Sgt. Jeff Barr told detectives that interview rooms were under constant electronic surveillance. But deputy chief Shawn Handlin ordered Barr to stop talking about the issue, Holmes found, in the mistaken belief that the sergeant wasn’t telling the truth. It took an inquiry from the police union, two weeks later, before the department contacted Axon in hopes of terminating 24/7 recording, Holmes found.
Axon has apologized for not making the system’s capabilities clear, but has not admitted to any problems with the design of the system, according to Holmes.
“I understand that it may not have been clearly communicated to your agency that the…buffer would be set for an extended period of time,” Isaiah Fields, an Axon vice president who is also a company lawyer, wrote in a letter to Police Chief Kenny Winslow last October. “I apologize to the extent this information may not have been called out or highlighted in our marketing and product materials.”
Fields also told the chief that lengthy backup video “is common in the industry as it allows agencies to retrieve an interview or confession that, for whatever reason, may not have been captured as a ‘recording’ at the time it occurred.” Holmes, however, found that the 24/7 recording was at odds with the Axon contract, which says that backup recordings were supposed to be saved starting seven minutes before interviews and ending seven minutes after interviews ended.
Pro-Vision, a Michigan company, advertises police interview room recording gear that never stops recording, but Sam Lehnert, marketing manager for the company, said that most departments prefer equipment that can be turned off. “We don’t do it any one way,” Lehnert said. “We let the customer decide.”
For now, signs have been installed outside the department’s interview rooms, warning that surveillance is in place. Why not simply keep the signs up and maintain surveillance to ensure that what happens in interview rooms can’t be hidden?
Winslow says that it’s a matter of getting what the city paid for when it bought the system.
“We want it to work as they said it would when they sold it to us,” the chief says.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org