The controversial detainment of NFL star Michael Bennett by a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer in August has garnered national outrage and attention amid accusations of racial profiling by the state’s largest police force.
In less than 48 hours, Bennett’s tweeted statement detailing the incident has been shared by more than 219,000 accounts and liked more than 372,000 times. Bennett claimed that Metro officers “singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Metro Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, who said that the department only became aware of Bennett’s disagreements with the detainment after it was posted on social media, denied Wednesday that the department singled out Bennett because of his race and pledged that Metro would undertake an internal investigation into the allegations.
To prove his point, McMahill showed members of the media a five-minute body camera video of the night of the event, including several frames of an officer detaining Bennett. McMahill said that though the arresting officer did not have his personal camera operating during the time of the arrest, the department was reviewing 126 other videos of the incident as part of its internal investigation.
Transparency advocates have questioned why the officer in question didn’t have his body camera recording, but in general have praised Metro as one of the more progressive police agencies in the country when it comes requiring police officers to wear body cameras. Nevada in 2017 became just the second state in the nation to require all police officers who interact with the public to wear body cameras.
But widespread adoption and use of body cameras by the department is a relatively recent development. Here’s how Metro got there:
Policy changes and widespread adoption
Chuck Callaway, Metro’s director of Intergovernmental Services, said the department’s interest in body-worn cameras came in the wake of a 2012 series of articles in the Las Vegas Review-Journal detailing the department’s excessive use of deadly force. The suggestion to have police officers wear body cameras was one of nearly 75 recommendations emerging from an eight-month study undertaken by a division of the U.S. Department of Justice studying the department’s use of deadly force and related topics.
The police department then in 2014 enrolled in a federally-funded pilot program equipping nearly 200 officers with body-worn cameras, comparing the behavior of officers wearing cameras with those that don’t.
Encouraged by the results, Callaway said that Metro leadership began equipping more of its police force with the cameras, but still opposed at least two bills in the 2015 legislative session that would have required all police officers to wear the cameras over concerns with cost. The bills were amended to remove the mandates and funded body camera purchases for highway patrol officers.
By the 2017 session, the department had successfully equipped essentially all of its officers with body cameras, and testified in favor of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford’s bill requiring all police officers in the state who deal with the public to wear body cameras. SB176 passed with a bipartisan majorities out of both houses of the Legislature, and was signed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval in May.
Although the bill doesn’t take effect until July 2018, Callaway said the department is essentially already following the requirements set forth in the legislation. And even though the bill sets up a funding source for body cameras by allowing county commissions to assess a small fee on 911 calls, Callaway said Metro has already secured funding for the cameras through its normal budgeting process, and that officers are generally happy with integrating the cameras into normal law enforcement activities.
“Officers are seeing the results,” he said. “I would absolutely wear a camera if i had to go back in the field.”
Metro and body cam policy
Although the law passed by state legislators in 2017 laid out a mandate and general guidelines for police to wear body cameras while on duty, the specific policies and procedures for use of the body cameras are left up to the individual agencies.
According to agency policy, all Metro officers hired after 2013 are required to wear a body-worn camera, while those hired ahead of that date may wear one voluntarily. Callaway said that collective bargaining agreements now require all uniformed officers who interact with the public to wear the cameras.
The policy includes several exceptions for officers to stop recording, including events of a “sensitive” nature involving child sexual assault or pornogrpahy, if the event has concluded prior to the officer’s arrival, or if the officer has “reasonable belief” that there will be no loss of “critical documentary information” if they stop recording.
The list of exemptions also allows officers to stop recording if asked by a citizen or if the officer determines the recording must be stopped “based on clearly articulable reasons.”
The policy prohibits officers from taking formal statements through the body camera, and advises officers to be “mindful” of sensitive locations including places of worship, doctor’s offices, hospitals and daycare facilities.
“We have to balance the privacy of the person we’re dealing with (against) the need to document the incident,” Callaway said.
Recordings are required to be kept for certain minimums, from 7 years for officer-involved shootings to 45 days for uncategorized videos and 90 days for any pursuit. Typically, recordings are considered to be public records and can be viewed by members of the media or concerned citizens, but are kept confidential during ongoing or active investigations.
Metro denied a Nevada Independent request for footage of the incident involving Bennett because of the ongoing internal investigation.
“The recordings therefore are considered evidence in the investigation and cannot be released as a public record,” the department said in an email. “Once the case has been resolved, the videos will be eligible for release as public record.”
What lies ahead
ACLU of Nevada Director Tod Story said it was “mind-boggling” that the officer in question did not have his camera recording during the detainment, but said Metro has been forthcoming with the civil rights group in the recent past and that they were awaiting the results of the internal investigation before taking any action.
“The large impetus for body cameras in Nevada was the exact situation that we find ourselves in right now, as you’ve got one side saying one thing and another saying something else,” he said.
Callaway said he couldn’t speak to specific details of the internal investigation, but that such investigations were typically confidential in nature unless officers broke the law. He said rules surrounding disciplining officers were typically governed by collective bargaining agreements and due process rights in Nevada law, but that the department generally attempted to be as transparent as possible.
“We’re very transparent when it comes to our dirty laundry,” he said. “If an officer is involved in something that’s of criminal nature, we make it public.”