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What happens when Philly police get body cameras — but don’t turn them on?

“We’ve heard complaints regarding these officers for years regarding illegal search and seizure, physical abuse. They rarely turn their body cameras on when they’re supposed to and almost never turn them on the entire time.”

An image of a police body camera in Philadelphia.
An image of a police body camera in Philadelphia.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

According to the police officers’ report and court testimony, they had rounded a corner in Kensington and observed a drug deal in the works. They confronted the dealer, but he fled. They captured and subdued him after a struggle, but the buyer got away in the melee.

A different story emerges from footage caught on surveillance cameras and bystanders’ cell phones. In it, there is no visible exchange of money or drugs. The alleged dealer, Juan Torres, does try to flee — but only after being searched for 2½ minutes. And subduing him entails repeated strikes with a baton, shocks with a Taser, and, at one point, a kick from an officer that knocks his feet out from under him, so he slams to the ground. As for the man identified as the buyer? The video shows he remained at the scene the whole time.

One way to reconcile these accounts might be through footage from body-worn cameras. The city spent $12.5 million in 2017 to outfit most of its police force with them. But not a single frame of body-camera footage was available from either the two initial officers or at least four more who arrived on the scene.

Michael Mellon of the Defender Association of Philadelphia said that’s a common problem in that police district.

“We’ve heard complaints regarding these officers for years regarding illegal search and seizure, physical abuse,” Mellon said. “They rarely turn their body cameras on when they’re supposed to and almost never turn them on the entire time.”

He conducted a review of cases generated by a squad in the 24th District — which takes in parts of Kensington, Port Richmond, and Juniata Park — including the officers who arrested Torres. Out of 60 investigations from March 2018 to April 2019, only six included any body-camera footage that began before a person was in handcuffs, he found. In only one case out of those six did all officers present activate their cameras before handcuffs were on.

And when body-camera footage was available, Mellon’s analysis found, it revealed concerning inconsistencies: In 18 of the 60 cases, there were one or more detained people who never appeared in the arrest paperwork. And in seven cases, Mellon confirmed that no Form 75-48A was ever completed for the individuals. That paperwork is key to documenting stops pursuant to a 2011 federal consent decree that resulted from a lawsuit over racial disparities.

Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, said the department was reviewing the episodes and the issues raised by the Defender Association, but could not comment further. He added that the department “continuously evaluate[s]” its policies on body cameras. “For example, the ‘buffer’ (i.e., pre-record) time was recently expanded from 30 seconds to 60 seconds,” he said, referring to footage a body camera preserves before an officer’s hitting the “record” button.

Body cameras were introduced to a single Philadelphia police district as a pilot in 2014 and were rolled out more widely over the last year. District Attorney Larry Krasner said that body cameras have already proven critical to protecting both officers and the public and that he has raised concerns about missing footage with the Police Department.

“It is troubling when [the cameras are] not on, or the video cannot be located,” Krasner said. “It happens in a significant number of cases.“

In some cases, Krasner said, there’s mention of body camera footage in police paperwork, but his office is never able to obtain it. “An officer can tag a video incorrectly, either by accident or on purpose, so it is not loaded into the system in a way the District Attorney’s Office can see.”

He said he’s spoken with the head of his charging unit about monitoring the issue.

Krasner’s office ended up withdrawing the charges against Torres after viewing the footage, according to Mellon, even though police reported retrieving 31 packets of heroin from the man’s “underwear area.”

It also withdrew drug-possession charges in the July 7, 2018, arrest of Rossie Morgan in Kensington. In that case, one officer out of four activated his body camera — revealing that two people who were stopped and detained were not documented in the paperwork.

Also missing from the police report in that case was that the leader of the 24th District squad was present: Sgt. Michael Spicer, who was promoted to that post in 2015 after being acquitted of federal charges that he and other officers beat and stole from suspects and falsified paperwork. In 2016, a spokesperson for then-DA Seth Williams denied to a reporter (who is now a communications staffer in Krasner’s office), that Spicer had continual involvement in narcotics arrests, despite his assignment patrolling an area home to notorious open-air drug markets. Spicer is on the DA’s list of officers who may not be called to testify.

Spicer did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the other officers involved in arresting Morgan.

One officer involved in Torres’ arrest, John Bradbury, declined to comment. Another, James Saxton, said he would need a supervisor’s approval to speak.

Saxton, in his official statement on the events of April 28, 2019, explained that the cameras “weren’t activated because they were knocked off us during the arrest.” He did not explain why there was no body-camera video from before the tussle.

David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who, with others, litigated the 2010 stop-and-frisk case that resulted in the consent decree and who has been monitoring the decline in police stops, said the episodes are worrisome.

“Things have somewhat improved," he said. “The numbers [of stops] are down, the quality is up. Of course, it’s always been a concern in this kind of litigation that police will make stops and just not report them.” Tracking reports that do not exist is difficult, if not impossible, Rudovsky conceded. But, he added, “If there’s proof of it going on in certain cases, I think that’s at least a signal that the police department ought to be looking very closely at how they want to monitor that.”

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an expert on body-camera policy at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said departments around the country have struggled to get officers to turn on cameras and to do so promptly.

“This is practically issue No. 1 with having an effective body-camera program,” she said. “If it’s not turned on until someone is in handcuffs, you’re losing a lot of important information that may be needed to get context for that whole interaction.”

“The question is how is that enforced?" she added. "That is going to be all about the culture and approach of the particular department. Ideally, there would be consequences for the failure to abide by the policy.”