Man sues police for turning off dashcam during arrest

Technically Incorrect: In St. Louis, the use of cameras offers another controversy. A man claims police tried to cover up alleged rough treatment as they arrested him.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

A scene from the dashcam when it was still rolling. KSDK-TV screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

We're all filming each other, a habit that can come in very useful when we encounter officers of the law.

Especially if they insist that the frisbee in our car is a sure sign that we're a pot smoker.

It's not, though, as if injustice only flies in one direction. The police, too, are increasingly using cameras to prove their side of incidents. Recently, police in Arizona released chilling bodycam footage of an incident in which an officer died to show the everyday perils of their job.

The use of cameras, though, remains imperfect. It remains open to abuse. In St. Louis, for example, a man who was arrested is reportedly suing the local police force because footage seems to show the police deliberately turning off their dashcam after they had manhandled him to the ground.

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, video from the scene -- the dashcam wasn't the only camera rolling -- has the audio of a female officer saying: "Hold up, everybody, hold up. We're red right now so if you guys are worried about cameras just wait."

The phrase "red right now" is said to refer to the light signal of a camera rolling. The Dispatch identified the officer as Kelli Swinton. KTVI-TV identified Swinton as having been named Officer of the Year in 2013.

The arrest of Cortez Bufford happened last April. His vehicle was stopped, as it was allegedly speeding and performed an illegal u-turn, as well as having some vague resemblance to a car identified as being connected to a shooting.

What ensued was police allegedly smelling marijuana in Bufford's car, his alleged refusal to get out of it, the police's allegedly observing a gun in his pocket and a forcible removal of Bufford from his car, after which he was allegedly assaulted. Police also used their Taser on him.

Bufford's lawyer says that excessive force was used on his client. Moreover, he told KTVI: "The probable cause statement was simply made up." He added: "Our client wasn't speeding, he didn't make an illegal U-turn and he didn't abruptly pull to the curb. Those are all figments of the officer's imagination."

The video that does exist appears to show the police kicking Bufford. Police say they found a 9mm gun on Bufford and live rounds, as well as marijuana.

Oddly, the criminal case against Bufford was dropped last August. The original incident report accused him of "assault of a law enforcement officer (intimidation)," as well as unlawful use of a weapon and marijuana possession.

A spokeswoman for the Circuit Attorney's office told the Dispatch that the case was dropped because "the action of turning off the dashcam video diminished the evidentiary merits of the case."

One can imagine that, in an instance where an officer was seen allegedly trying to influence the evidence that might be presented, any other evidence presented might have a slight odor to it.

I contacted the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to ask for its reaction to the fact that the case was dropped and to wonder just what discipline Swinton might have been recommended for. I was referred to the office of the mayor.

City Counselor Winston Calvert told me: "The officers were confronted with an individual who refused to comply with police officers, and was reaching for a semi-automatic gun. In these circumstances, the officers acted with appropriate force in making the arrest. The officers did what was necessary to protect themselves and to protect the public from a man who was kicking, punching, and reaching for a gun."

However, he added: "The Police Department's policy required that the officers leave the dash camera on. An Internal Affairs Investigation found that an officer violated that policy and should be disciplined. The officer is currently appealing the discipline."

Dashcam units used by the St. Louis Police Department have a 90-second post-event buffer. This means they (should) continue to record after the stop button has been pushed. However, lawyers for the officers contend that nothing more happened than the action visible on the video.

The case brings up many facets regarding the use of cameras in law enforcement.

It took a long time for this footage to even emerge. Some police forces believe that such footage isn't necessarily public property, as there may be privacy issues involved with respect to those who are featured in videos. Moreover, KTVI reported that the Missouri Attorney General, Chris Koster, is in favor of ensuring that all bodycam and in-car camera footage be kept from public eyes.

As more and more footage is taken, who will be tasked with keeping it all anyway?

This case, though, highlights the possibility of subterfuge. If footage appears to be incomplete, will there be a natural assumption that an officer tampered with it? Very probably.

What's interesting in Swinton's alleged actions here is the sheer normality with which she suggests turning off the camera. It sounds like something that might, just might, have happened before once or twice. She doesn't even seem concerned that her words may be themselves recorded.

Why is it that she might think that the other officers were worried about cameras? Why, if she had any doubt at all, did she still go ahead and turn the camera off?

When it comes to technology, there is always someone who is at its controls. The question is, who should be?