57% of Aurora police bodycam videos contained interrupted footage, audit finds

Officers currently not required to report when cameras are dislodged or ‘fall off’

A police officer wears a body camera while responding to a call on Oct. 25, 2019. (Tony Webster via Flickr under license CC BY-SA 2.0)

An independent city audit of the Aurora Police Department found significant gaps in policies around the use of body-worn cameras, including interrupted video footage, lack of review by supervisors and miscategorizations within the department’s tracking system.

“There are some areas where APD is doing well, such as activating cameras when arriving on scene,” said Michelle Crawford, who led the three-person independent audit team. “But there are some areas where improvements are needed, such as interrupted footage and supervisor reviews.”

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The purpose of the audit was to see how well the Aurora Police Department complies with policies, laws and best practices related to the use of body-worn cameras. The department started using body-worn cameras in 2016, according to Crawford, and is currently going through the purchasing process for a new vendor.

The audit was requested by City Manager Jim Twombly in response to the Elijah McClain case and officers’ body-worn cameras “falling off and not recording a lot of the actual action there,” he said during the presentation. Twenty-three-year-old McClain died days after a violent encounter with Aurora Police in August 2019 after officers placed him in two chokeholds and first responders injected him with ketamine, a powerful sedative. 

At a city council meeting last month, Twombly indicated that he plans to create a new position in the city’s internal audit department to oversee the Aurora police.

The 32-page report was presented by Crawford at Aurora’s Public Safety, Courts & Civil Service policy committee meeting on Sept. 17. The auditors made a handful of recommendations within the report, all of which the Aurora Police Department has agreed to comply with and implement.

Independent audit finds over half of videos reviewed contain interrupted footage

The audit team selected a random sample of 139 videos from various departments and units from Jan. 1 through March 31. Out of the 139 videos that were reviewed, 79 of them, or 57%, included interrupted footage — meaning the camera was turned on or off during an incident, according to the report. 

Per department policy, an officer is required to verbalize the reason for turning off their camera before stopping the footage. Of the videos that contained interrupted footage, 77% of the time the officer did not verbalize their reason for interrupting the recording.

“Without verbalizing a reason for deactivating their camera, it is unclear why the deactivation occurred, leading to questions regarding the officer’s actions and potentially undermining community trust of the integrity of the recording,” the audit read.

Key recommendations outlined 

  • Develop procedures to monitor compliance for when officers deactivate their body-worn cameras.
  • Update training protocols to ensure cameras will be on for the entirety of an event, with limited expectations. 
  • Assign a specific unit to monitor body-worn camera compliance, and develop a thorough documentation system. 
  • Evaluate future camera systems that can flag videos that are not categorized correctly.
  • Develop procedures to monitor compliance with the use of cameras, including randomly selecting calls to review the existence of corresponding videos.
  • Establish a procedure for officers to report if their camera gets dislodged.

Best practice is that once activated, the body-worn camera should “remain in recording mode until the conclusion of the incident or encounter, officer has left the scene, or a supervisor has authorized that a recording may cease,” Twombly stated in the report.

The audit team determined best practices by comparing the current policies in place with other organizations and sources, including Colorado’s new police accountability law, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, among others, Crawford said. 

Discrepancy with activation and deactivation protocols 

In the report, 96% of officers activated their cameras at the beginning of an incident, but only 89% followed deactivation policies currently in place. Officers are allowed to turn off their camera under certain circumstances, including during general conversations with peers or supervisors, when removed from a crime scene, or during a private conversation.

“APD’s (policy) allows for de-activation under certain circumstances. As you will read in the audit those circumstances are not always clearly defined and leave room for interpretation,” wrote Twombly in the audit report. 

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For example, the auditors observed that some officers deactivated their cameras when they ran someone’s information through their databases to check for outstanding warrants, while other officers kept their cameras on, according to Crawford.

ADP does not have procedures in place to monitor deactivation compliance, according to the report.

“We recommend that the department updates their training to reflect the expectation that cameras will be on for the entirety of the event with limited exceptions,” Crawford said during her presentation.

Supervisors not reviewing video footage for compliance, lack of categorization

Another issue highlighted in the report was that supervisors were not reviewing body-worn camera footage to monitor compliance.

“The current body-worn camera system cannot document supervisor reviews within the system,” it said in the audit report. 

The audit found that 99% of the videos that were reviewed did not have a supervisor access them. The team issued a survey to APD supervisors to gather more information on whether reviews were occurring. 

“86% of those who responded said they do review body-worn camera videos but those reviews are because of complaints or uses of force, they weren’t for compliance with the directives,” Crawford said.

Aurora police advance at City Center Park in Aurora during a protest on June 27, 2020, in response to the death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police. (Photo by John Moore)

The auditors recommended that APD assigns an “appropriate unit” to monitor department-wide body-worn camera footage for compliance, and to also creates a thorough documentation system. The estimated implementation date is March 31, 2021, according to the report.

The audit found that the Aurora Police Department lacks procedures to make sure that videos are being categorized correctly. “Our review identified several events with multiple categorizations or events that included unrelated videos,” Crawford said.

Body-worn camera videos are automatically deleted by the system based on the categorization of the video. “This is important because the retention of videos relies on the proper categorizations,” Crawford added.

Officers did a good job not obstructing their cameras, keeping them attached

The only area that didn’t receive recommendations was related to obstruction of video footage. In 97% of the videos that were reviewed, the footage was clear of obstruction. The report states that obstruction lasted only a few seconds in the videos that had any.

The team found that in 99% of the videos, the cameras had remained on the officer’s body. “In the one video where the camera became detached, two officers were climbing over a fence. The camera was separated when one officer helped the other over the fence. The officer immediately reattached the camera,” Crawford said.

Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who chairs the policy committee, stressed she’d like to see a policy implemented that requires officers to report when their bodycam video gets detached, and why. She noted that it’s been less of an issue since the department got new cameras that attach more securely but that there have been instances when cameras have been knocked off or removed.

“I’d like to see that ASAP, personally,” Hiltz added. “I don’t know if my colleagues feel the same way. But I think that recording is pretty important.”

The audit committee will track the implementation of all recommendations that appeared in the report.