On Nov. 1, a motorist struck one of rancher Jack Yantis' cattle near the Adams County town of Council. When Yantis arrived on the scene, Adams County sheriff's deputies were already there. Yantis was armed. Though the exact details are still unknown, the one thing the public does know is that guns were fired and Yantis was shot and killed.
Since then, conflicting witness accounts have offered some insight but for the public and media, a significant piece of evidence has yet to surface: video footage of the incident. The Adams County Sheriff's Office confirmed the deputies who shot Yantis were wearing body cameras but hasn't released the video. For Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, the Yantis shooting is an object lesson in the merits and pitfalls of officer-worn body cameras.
"If I've got video ... good or bad, I have a desire to show that and release it. There are going to be some restrictions on what I can or can't do," Bones said. "Working through some of those are going to be some of my more difficult days."
The Boise City Council approved a nearly $1.5 million, five-year purchase agreement Dec. 15 for Taser's Axon body cameras and space on Taser's server to store video files. In spring 2016, the first 25-30 cameras will be distributed to Boise Police Department patrol officers. Ultimately, almost every officer—including the chief—will wear one. Ahead of the cameras' rollout, BPD is building a policy for the use of the bodycams.
"We're working with prosecutors to make sure that we have protected the privacy interests of the public while remaining transparent," Bones said.
The cameras will always be recording but during an enforcement action, officers will push a button on the unit that flags footage beginning 30 seconds before its activation. Non-flagged video will queue on Taser's server, awaiting deletion, but flagged video is treated as evidence. Attorneys in criminal cases will have unfettered access to video, and members of the public filing information requests will be able to obtain footage with sensitive information redacted. For police watchdogs like ACLU-Idaho Public Policy Coordinator Kathy Griesmyer, that's where some major problems lie.
"There's skepticism not so much in terms of accountability, but there are concerns for privacy rights both for police and for the public when it comes to mass video collection," she said.
Information that could be redacted might be video of bystanders, minors and crime victims. Much of what police officers see on calls is inadmissible as evidence and inappropriate for public consumption.
Earlier this year, the ACLU drafted a policy addressing video use, storage and access, and is designed to maximize police transparency while preventing sensitive information from appearing before the public.
ACLU's model policy reflects a few of the ways other law enforcement agencies have deployed body cameras without updating their evidence collection or storage practices. In a November 2015 report card, Upturn, a consultancy firm that specializes in civil rights and technology, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights concluded many of the nation's largest early-adopting police departments have not made their policies publicly available. Many more allow officers to view body camera video prior to filing police reports. Others have ambiguous or prohibitive policies regarding the public's access to bodycam video.
"Not only should there be this discretionary piece that tells law enforcement how they should be using their cameras and under what circumstances, but also this back-end piece about releasing information, as well as how long it should be available to the public," Griesmyer said.
Body cameras are set to revolutionize police accountability, but few in the law enforcement community have said the new technology will have a significant impact on how officers do their jobs. Since photo and video became commonplace technology on phones, police have become accustomed to being recorded while on the job. Using the cameras is a matter of pushing a button and, in the halls of justice, video is subject to most of the same storage and handling rules as other digital evidence like audio and photos.
Boise Police Overseer Natalie Camacho-Mendoza was cautiously optimistic about what can be achieved with body cameras.
"It's meeting that transparency desire that the public has. I just don't know if it's going to be as everybody hopes it will be because of how they're worn and depending on how they interact with the community," she said.
Nevertheless, a growing body of social scientific evidence suggests police wearing body cameras improve relations between police and comunities. A University of South Florida research team working with the Orlando Police Department conducted a yearlong, randomized experiment with body cameras. It concluded the cameras aided in police work and influenced officers' behavior, reducing the number of complaints. Most officers involved in the study said they wanted to keep their cameras. In September, The Journal of Quantitative Criminology published a report that concluded officers wearing body cameras were less likely to use force in an enforcement action and received fewer complaints from the public.
Bones said he's excited for the cameras as training and evidence gathering tools, as well as for public relations purposes, but for his part, he said anything that can de-escalate a situation makes Boise a safer place.
"As the cameras roll out and everybody's aware they're on a camera, whether it's an officer or citizen, knowing you're [being] recorded, you tend to be a little bit nicer, be on your best," he said. "I think it'll reduce the [number of situations] that might have gone south just because everybody knows they're on video."