Louisiana Shooting Highlights Body Camera Issues

By Dan Frosch and Valerie Bauerlein 
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When a black man was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, La., on Tuesday morning, the incident was captured in graphic detail by multiple cameras.

But none of that footage came from the two officers involved, since authorities said their lapel cameras became dislodged while trying to subdue 37-year-old Alton Sterling outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge.

The shooting, which was filmed by several bystanders, came after one of the officers appeared to kneel on Mr. Sterling and hold a gun to him. The incident shows the limitations of body cameras, even as cities scramble to outfit officers with the devices amid public outcry over police shootings.

The devices are meant to provide greater police transparency and accountability, but over the past several years, police across the country have encountered a litany of issues with body cameras — from officers refusing to activate them, to disputes over when footage should be publicly released, to technical malfunctions.

Meanwhile, citizens have taken to filming their own police encounters — sometimes live-streaming them in case phones are confiscated — compounding pressure on police to maintain official recordings.

On Wednesday night, the aftermath of a separate fatal police shooting of a black man in a Minneapolis suburb was live streamed by the victim’s girlfriend, sparking an uproar on social media. In that case, the officer involved was not wearing a body camera.

“People will make a mistake if they think we can solve all these problems just by giving the cops a camera,” said Jim Bueermann, retired chief of the Redlands Police Department in California and president of the Police Foundation, a law enforcement research group. “In some cases, it creates other problems. This is not a panacea.”

Experts say the technology around police cameras is still very much in its infancy — akin to 1980s-era phones, Mr. Bueermann said. During the comparatively tiny percentage of times that police encounters end in a physical struggle — as occurred with Mr. Sterling — camera footage may well be rendered unusable precisely when it is needed the most.

Such limitations, along with some officers’ reluctance to embrace the technology, have muddied efforts to reduce police misconduct.

A 2014 Justice Department report found that police officers in Albuquerque, N.M., had failed to document numerous incidents with their lapel cameras. Later that year, an Albuquerque officer was fired after repeatedly refusing orders to turn on his body camera. The firing came after the officer, with his camera off, fatally shot a 19-year-old woman suspected of felony auto theft. The officer said that she pointed a gun at him while being chased.

Earlier this year, the Round Lake Park Police Department in suburban Chicago dropped its use of body cameras when officers complained they were impossible to turn off and would film at all times, even when officers were using the restroom.

When New York City launched a body camera pilot program in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the department was testing “retention devices” to make sure body cameras don’t fall off during a struggle.

Some district attorney offices around the country have reported being overwhelmed with camera footage of even the most mundane police encounters, which can take time and resources to sift through.

In other instances, the American Civil Liberties Union has criticized police departments for failing to publicly release camera footage during investigations of officer shootings or other use of force incidents.

“The problems with law enforcement go much deeper than can be solved by cameras,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU. “They are a tool, which have the potential to help if the officer is well-trained and feels it is more likely to protect them then be used against them.”

Still, several studies have shown that use of force incidents and citizen complaints have both gone down after officers begin wearing cameras.

A study published in May by the University of Cambridge in the U.K. found that complaints of use of force by officers dropped when they recorded every interaction, but rose when they had the option of when to turn them on. The authors studied more than 2,100 officers in the United States and the U.K., and noted that research is lacking on the actual efficacy of body cameras.

According Michael White, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University, between 40 and 50 percent of the 18,000 police departments in the U.S. now use body cameras. Only a handful wore them before 2012, he said.

The Baton Rouge Police Department began its body camera pilot program last fall. The department has been testing several types of cameras, but the officers involved in the shooting death of Mr. Sterling were wearing models made by Motorola Solutions, a relative newcomer to the body camera market.

The officers were wearing the Si500 model, which rolled out in October and combines a camera with a remote speaker and microphone for the officer’s radio. Motorola said in a statement that its engineers had been working with Baton Rouge police since the pilot project began.

–Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

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