Ever since a Ferguson police officer gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown, prompting weeks of civil unrest, citizens, journalists, activists and even police departments are calling for more police departments to issue body-mounted cameras to officers.
After all, they say, a camera would have put to rest the debate whether Brown was shot while on his knees with his hands in the air as multiple witnesses reported or if he really did come charging at officer Darren Wilson, causing the officer to fear for his life, as police and a dozen mythical witnesses insist.
However, the Albuquerque Police Department, which introduced lapel cameras in 2010 and has more cameras than any other department in the country, continues to have the county’s highest rate of officer-involved shootings that result in deaths, topping New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami.
So shouldn’t the cameras hold these trigger-happy officers accountable if the footage determines the shootings were unjustified?
They would if the footage actually exists, but many times the officers claim the cameras were not turned on or even if they were, they somehow did not capture the incident. Or many times, they just won’t release the footage.
That was the case again Tuesday when KOAT reported that none of the footage it requested from a police shooting in July that left a man dead shows the actual shooting, despite the fact there were multiple officers on the scene. However, they did release lapel camera footage that captured the moments after Robertson was shot.
We can imagine the footage would contradict what they reported back in July when police claimed they had to kill Jeremy Robertson because he made them fear for their lives.
Albuquerque Police says plain-clothes detectives approached Robertson at the station. They say he then ran off and pulled a gun from his waistband.
Police say Robertson ran across Central, into the parking lot of a Valero gas station, then through an alley into a nearby neighborhood off Glorieta St. NE.
“The subject was still armed and posing an immediate threat to officers,” said Deputy Chief William Roseman. “At this time, we believe two shots were fired and two officers were involved.”
However, surveillance video from a nearby business posted by KOAT Tuesday shows them chasing Robertson but doesn’t show him reaching for his waistband. In one brief second, he appears to place his hands in the air as he continues running. Not exactly surrendering but not exactly reaching for a gun either.
In another scene, it shows him running across a field with a cop in a nearby parking lot pointing a rifle at him, but we never get to see the actual killing.
Police say Robertson was eventually confronted by Albuquerque police officers Anthony Sedler and Ramon Ornellas who shot and killed him, the fourth citizen killed by this pair since 2010.
The video, which appears not to be embeddable, can be seen here.
According to the Albuquerque Journal:
The lapel footage released Tuesday from Sedler’s and Ornelas’ cameras appears to start after the shooting. Footage from other detectives shows other officers pointing their guns at Robertson after he was shot, putting him in handcuffs and emergency medical technicians responding.
Sedler and Ornelas each fired twice at Robertson.
It’s not the first time police have failed to produce lapel footage of a deadly shooting.
No footage was recovered from the officer, identified as Jeremy Dear, who police say shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in April. A report from the camera’s manufacturer was inconclusive about why, saying the camera could have malfunctioned or the officer could have turned it off.
The Department of Justice in April issued a scathing report, saying APD violated citizens’ constitutional rights through its use of force. The federal department applauded APD for using lapel cameras, but said the policy is inconsistently used and is not enforced strictly enough.
The report also said tactical units such as the SWAT team lack the leadership necessary to prevent deadly force.
The Albuquerque Journal, which reported last week that the police department has more cameras than any other department in the country, says the city will now spend an additional $50,000 to study why the cameras have done nothing to curb the violence, which is being investigated by the United States Department of Justice.
Albuquerque police may have more on-body cameras than any other police department in the country, but city officials say there are serious problems with the police department’s lapel camera policy that need to be fixed.
The city will pay $50,000 for a University of New Mexico professor to study APD’s lapel camera policies with an eye toward making changes.
Albuquerque police require officers to record all encounters with citizens on their lapel cameras. The policy is aimed at increasing transparency.
But the Department of Justice has raised concern over how often officers violate the policy without being disciplined, which it says contributed to use-of-force incidents.
City and union officials have other concerns, as well.
“It was well-intended,” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said of the policy. “But I don’t think it’s working as effectively as it should.”
He said field services officers spend 15 to 20 percent of their shift uploading and logging footage they record. And police officials have concerns about privacy rights of victims and witnesses who are recorded by police, and how the hours of recorded videos affect the discovery process as cases wind through court.
Witnesses and victims have complained about being recorded by officers, said Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association.
“We believe we should have lapel cameras for transparency,” she said. “But there should be exceptions.”
So police are now bringing up mythical witnesses and victims as to why they should not be forced to wear cameras at all times. And in Miami, where county mayor Carlos Gimenez is trying to force Miami-Dade police officers to wear cameras, police union boss John Rivera declared that these cameras could place officers’ lives at risk.
Last month, a New Orleans officer turned off her body-mounted camera before shooting a suspect in the head.
Nationally, many police chiefs have come out in favor of body-mounted cameras, including Denver Police Chief Robert White, who said “the only officers who would have a problem with body cameras are bad officers.”
Many chiefs who support these cameras cite a highly touted study of the Rialto Police Department that they lead to a reduction in use of force incidents, but not only was that study sponsored by Taser, Inc, the company that makes many of these cameras, it turned a blind eye towards Albuquerque.
And as we reported earlier this year, it takes education, training and strong leadership – in addition to body-mounted cameras – to curb police aggression towards citizens.
A petition created in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting is asking for a federal bill to force all officers to wear these cameras, but even if that happens, it is obvious that would only be the first step in ensuring transparency and accountability.