Why Arvada declined to put body cameras on their police officers

Seven years ago, the city of Arvada commissioned a study to examine whether the police department should equip its officers with body-worn cameras.

Law enforcement agencies around the country were moving quickly in response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man. President Barack Obama even set aside $75 million to outfit officers across the nation with cameras — a piece of equipment that reformers said would increase police transparency.

Colorado agencies began falling into line. The Boulder Police Department in 2014 put cameras on its officers. Denver followed suit three years later. By 2021, all but three of Colorado’s 20 largest law enforcement agencies had body-worn camera programs.

But Arvada leaders decided they wouldn’t join them, saying cameras on cops wouldn’t markedly improve the department’s relationship with its citizens or have a “meaningful impact on … use-of-force situations.”

That decision is all the more relevant after Monday’s shooting in Olde Town Arvada that left a veteran police officer, a man described by police as a “Samaritan” and a gunman dead.

As Jefferson County authorities investigate the shooting by Arvada police of Johnny Hurley, the 40-year-old Denverite hailed as a hero for preventing further bloodshed, they will not have any body-camera evidence to weigh when deciding whether it was justified.

“There was a time when reasonable police leaders may have had a debate about whether cameras were effective, whether it was a worthwhile idea,”  said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado. “But that debate has been resolved.”

Arvada’s 2014 report

Arvada’s 114-page report lays out the pros and cons of body-worn cameras, delving into cost-benefit analyses and case studies from other agencies in the state and even other countries.

“In the process of weighing the possible benefits of (body-worn cameras) against the potential downsides of their use, we realized the APD did not have a history of contentious relations with Arvada residents or other citizens, that we had very few use-of-force complaints involving allegations of bias of any kind, and that there was little to no evidence suggesting our residents lack confidence in or distrust the APD,” the city explains on its website.

Arvada pledged at the time to “informally reassess the need” for body cameras moving forward.

“We have done that, and have not seen any evidence that has changed our decision,” city officials wrote.

That all will change in two years, when a sweeping police accountability bill signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis last summer takes effect.

Senate Bill 217, passed as a direct response to the George Floyd protests in Denver and across the country, will make it mandatory by 2023 for all law enforcement agencies in Colorado to institute body-camera programs.

It will require, among a litany of other changes to law enforcement practices, that cameras be activated when officers are responding to calls for service. Police who purposely fail to activate their cameras or tamper with them could face criminal liability or other penalties.

The law also will require agencies to release footage from those cameras within 21 days after an allegation of misconduct, or within 45 days if the release could jeopardize a criminal investigation.

Arvada city officials say the department has every intention of complying with the new law, and the “majority of officers are very welcoming of the idea,” Detective David Snelling said.

“The thought process is to show people what they face every day, and they’re comfortable with that,” he said.

Snelling said he couldn’t answer as to whether body cameras would have been helpful for situations such as Monday’s shooting in Olde Town.

“Every police department and every city is different and requires different things,” Snelling said.

“If you have problems with a city and a police department, body cams aren’t the complete solution,” he said. “The other concern is, they don’t fully put the viewer into that situation. They don’t get some of the sounds, the smells, the tension, the complete surrounding. That could be dangerous.”

Arvada Mayor Marc Williams told The Denver Post that he’s only received one email asking the city to move more quickly on instituting cameras.

“Frankly, I don’t recall in my almost 10 years as mayor having anyone really pushing hard for body cameras,” he said.

The primary reason why the department didn’t add them before the state’s mandate?

“Lack of need,” Williams said.

Arvada has had three police shootings since 2019, according to Denver Post data. One, on June 2, involved police shooting at a man suspected of armed robbery at a Target store.

Two others involved Arvada officer shooting and killing men involved in alleged domestic violence incidents.

“Back to the bad old days”

Arvada police on Friday afternoon released a detailed timeline of the shooting, confirming that an Arvada officer shot and killed Hurley after the man hailed as a hero fatally shot the gunman who had ambushed and killed Officer Gordon Beesley.

Hurley, police allege, was holding the gunman’s AR-15 when the officer shot him.

Police released a video Friday that shows, from a far-off angle, the gunman chasing after Beesley. The video does not show Hurley killing the gunman or the unnamed officer shooting Hurley.

Jefferson County District Attorney Alexis King said Friday that the Critical Incident Response Team, an interagency group assembled when an officer fires their weapon and injures or kills someone, is investigating Hurley’s death. Arvada police last week said an unidentified officer is on administrative leave as the county team investigates the shooting.

What the responding officers saw that day goes a long way in determining whether they acted in a justified manner, said David Lane, a civil rights attorney who has represented numerous families in lawsuits against police departments.

“Because there’s no body cams, we have to rely on the word of all the cops, which takes us back to the bad old days,” Lane said. “Cops would test a lie in court all the time, and there’s no way to disprove it. Body cameras would tell us, ‘was this a reasonable act by a cop or a trigger act by a cop that got scared?’”

Body cameras are not only helpful for victims of police brutality, they’re also a strong tool for fending off unjustified complaints against police misconduct and building confidence with the public, said Silverstein, the ACLU legal director.

It’s one reason why nearly all of Colorado’s largest law enforcement agencies have adopted body-worn cameras.

Of the 20 largest jurisdictions in the state, only Arvada’s and Lakewood’s police departments, as well as the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, do not employ cameras.

The Weld County Sheriff’s Office adopted a program in the last year, while Westminster police have rolled out body cameras for some, but not all, uniformed officers, a department spokesperson said.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and lead sponsor of last year’s police accountability bill, said tragic shootings like the one in Arvada could not have been foreseen when lawmakers passed their bill, but “this incident shows why body camera footage is necessary.”

“If these officers had those body cams on… we would have a clearer picture of what happened that day,” she said. “We’d rely less on hearsay and more on the facts and evidence from the camera.”

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