Turning on body-worn cameras

Police discover the obvious: bodycams only work when they're turned on
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Soo Rin Kim

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.

With strong financial support from the federal government, police body-worn cameras are quickly becoming an essential tool for police accountability across the country. Debates about who should get access to bodycam recordings and when are raging across the country, but what if recordings of the most critical moments don’t even exist in the first place?

Two recent incidents in San Diego prove an obvious rule — bodycams are only worthwhile when they are turned on.

When a 27-year veteran police officer was confronted with a knife-weilding suspect, he says he did not have time to hit the record button on his camera. Thus, the San Diego Police Department doesn’t have bodycam footage of one of the most controversial moments of officer-involved shootings in recent months.

On April 30, Fridoon Rawshan Nehad, 42, was reported to have threatened an adult bookstore employee with a knife and “continued to advance” on Officer Neal N. Browder when he arrived at the scene. When Nehad did not comply with the officer’s verbal command, he was shot and killed.

But further investigation revealed that he was actually holding a pen, not a knife.

“The guy was walking, just normal, lazical (sic), lazy walking,” a witness told a reporter for the NBC affiliate. “If he (the officer) said ‘stop’, that’s all he said. He just opened the door, and said ‘stop’ and shot.”

Nehad’s family told the media he had been suffering PTSD and mental illness from his time in the Afghanistan army.

Without any bodycam footage, the incident lacks its key evidence for investigation to determine if the officer really was facing an imminent danger. His family filed a $20 million lawsuit against the city and the officer for use of excessive and unreasonable deadly force.

A week after the incident, the SDPD announced a revision to its bodycam policies on when to turn on the cameras. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman told reporters that officers now have to turn the camera on when they get the radio call or before they arrive at the scene, not right before they make actual contact.

But the latest publicly available bodycam policy, dated July 8, 2015, show no actual wording had changed regarding when to start recording. The policy simply states that body-worn cameras “should be activated prior to actual contact with the citizen, or as soon as safely possible.”

More recently, on Oct. 20, 2015, another man was fatally shot by San Diego officers. Officer Scott Thompson and Officer Gregory Lindstrom were on traffic patrol when they spotted Lamontez Ardelbert Jones disrupting traffic. When the officers attempted to contact the suspect, he turned around and pulled what appeared to be a large caliber handgun and pointed it at the officers.

The police department stated the officers opened fire only after the suspect didn’t comply with the officers’ verbal commands to drop the weapon. Officers fired again when the suspect raised his weapon and pointed it at the officers after falling to the ground.

But investigators later revealed that what seemed like a gun was actually merely a replica.

Again, both of the officers apparently failed to turn on their body-worn cameras, making it difficult to figure out what exactly happened at the scene.

But SDPD Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman defended the officers, saying events transpired so quickly that they were not able to hit the record button.

“When our officers are facing the barrel of a handgun or some other life-threatening situation, we expect their first consideration is protecting themselves and our citizens,” Zimmerman told NBC San Diego.

In light of the recent SDPD officer-involved shootings, more than 100 community members gathered at the Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park, on Oct. 22, to protest against police violence.

Catherine Mendonça, a spokesperson for rally organizer United Against Police Terror, said without transparency and accountability the body-worn camera program is of no use. She said she is especially alarmed the officers didn’t record the incident even after the revision in the department policies.

“The magic words of 'officer safety' give them too much room to wiggle,” Mendonca said. “All we’re asking is to just touch their chest.”

It’s been more than a year since the San Diego Police Department rolled out body cameras on June 30, 2014, after pilot program earlier that year. As of September 2015, 871 officers have been outfitted with the cameras, and the police department plans to increase the number to 1,000 by the end of this year.

Zimmerman said the police department is constantly revising body-worn camera policies and that officers are still trying to get used to activating cameras. Currently, because the department storage does not allow continuous recording of body cameras, officers must manually activate a button to record video when in need.

She also said the SDPD is looking to see if there is any technology that allows automatic activation of a camera when a service weapon is drawn.

“Time is needed to train officers to turn on the camera and develop muscle memory,” Kellen Russoniello, staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said in a statement. “But SDPD should intervene when officers fail to follow policy and discipline officers for repeated or blatant violations of the policy.”

None of the officers involved in both the Rawshan and Jones incidents have faced any consequences for failing to turn the cameras on.

In August, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., officer failed to turn on the camera he was wearing when he fatally shot a mentally ill man who was wielding what turned out to be a spoon. The officer confronted Jeffory Tevis, after getting a call that he had engaged in self destructive behavior and had threatened a neighbor. When Tevis charged at the officer from a distance, the officer fired twice, killing Tevis.

Tuscaloosa Police Department policy on body camera states that officers should have the cameras on at “any time there’s going to be enforcement action taken."

In Oklahoma, a body-worn camera recording of a Henryetta police officer chasing down and detaining a robbery suspect spread quickly around the Internet, leading to allegations of police brutality.

What drew most attention from the public comes in a minute into the video when an officer apparently whispers “turn it off,” to the officer wearing a bodycam. Instead of turning the camera off, the officer turns away from the scene.

Henryetta Police Chief Steve Norman told KJRH he was at the scene and the officers simply went through the standard procedure.

In Vermont, Vermont Public Radio reported that two Burlington police officers who failed to record a incident involving gun fire in August have been freed of any criminal charges.

Burlington Police Department requires the entire department to be outfitted with bodycams. But the officers turned their cameras off right before confronting James Hemingway, who was drunk and threatening to shoot them.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan said in a statement that the officers turned the camera off to stop the red lights and beeping sound that come out during recording mode to approach Hemingway discreetly.

But VPR reported that the users’ manual for the Taser AXON body camera details how to mute the sound and turn the light off.

VPR’s phone conversation with Burlington Deputy Police Chief Bruce Bovat indicated that he did not know about the functions. The Police Chief Brandon del Pozo admitted that officers’ lack of familiarity with the equipment shows a need for additional training and policy changes.

“Apparently we have a lot of work to do to make sure we have a policy that captures the type of footage we need to capture, especially during a firearms discharge,” the police chief told VPR.

At a recent public hearing on new Washington, D.C., police body-worn camera policies, open government advocates and domestic violence victim advocates unanimously voiced concern that body-worn camera itself is not going to be the solution for better relationship between the police and the community.

Adam Marshall, a legal fellow with the Reporters Committee criticized the D.C. government’s secretive attitudes toward building the policies and called for open discussions from various sectors in the community.

The Reporters Committee is tracking bodycam policies nationwide, particularly with regard to public access to the footage.