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As the nation tries to make sense of this week’s police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, officers’ body cameras are once again coming under intense scrutiny. Law enforcement agencies across the country have begun equipping their officers with such devices in the wake of high profile accusations of police misconduct. The idea is that by capturing everything on camera, suspects will be protected by officers who know the video footage will hold them accountable, and officers will be protected from false accusations of misconduct, as the video might exonerate them.
But as the Sterling shooting shows, these cameras are hardly a perfect means of accountability.
Authorities said after the shooting that body cameras worn by the two police officers involved allegedly fell off during the altercation, and didn’t capture footage. Critics say that explanation is awfully convenient — and arguably untrue.
Louisiana State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle wants answers. The Democrat, who chairs the city’s body camera committee, told NBC News that the explanation seemed suspicious as it looks like only one officer was involved in the actual wrestling to the ground of Sterling in cellphone video captured by an eyewitness. “I don’t know how the other one could have fallen or when it would have come off," Marcelle said. "They couldn’t both have fallen off at the same time."
The Democratic lawmaker recounted Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie telling her after the shooting that officers were wearing Motorola brand body cameras under a pilot program. Marcelle added that she was confused as to why those cameras were being used, as the chief said at a recent meeting that they planned to immediately switch to a different brand because they were having problems with Motorola cameras, including accounts of them falling off.
The city’s police department did not return requests for comment. Motorola Solutions acknowledged in a statement that it had been “working closely” with the Baton Rouge Police Department as they piloted their body cameras. “Our engineers have been onsite throughout the pilot to ensure the body-worn cameras meet the police department’s mission-critical requirements. Motorola Solutions last month presented the Baton Rouge Police Department with various camera mounting configurations for their consideration throughout the pilot.” A spokeswoman at the company would not respond to questions on whether its cameras falling off has been a known problem, or if anything will be done to fix it.
The head of the ACLU in Louisiana also questioned what happened to cause both officers’ body cameras to fall off during the same incident. “Either the equipment malfunctioned, or the officers weren’t properly trained to secure the cameras, or perhaps it was intentional. Whatever it is, something happened," said Marjorie Esman, the group’s executive director. "And that something needs to be fixed."
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser, a leading manufacturer of body cameras worn by police departments, explained that it would be rare for both officers body cameras to fall off during a scuffle. “It’s not unheard of, but it’s very unusual in the overall industry and certainly isn’t a significant issue for us despite seven years of our cameras being worn by more than 3,500 law enforcement agencies,” said Tuttle. He also stressed that the fatal incident in Baton Rouge did not involve Taser cameras.
Many law enforcement officials, however, said it is entirely possible that both cameras could have fallen off. Tim Doubt, assistant chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department — who oversaw 350 officers in his department getting body cameras in the past few years — noted the equipment has its shortcomings.
“There are different body cameras out there and the wires can get tangled up in things,” he said, recounting an altercation in February when an officer’s camera fell off when he was assaulted by a person with a snow shovel. “We have seen it happen when two officers are engaged with a person, but it’s rare.” Doubt said his department was looking into whether there was a better way to mount the cameras without wires.
Darrell Basco, state president of the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, said he doesn’t know what made the cameras fall off, but either way, “I would think any police administrator would see what the cause was and how to fix the problem. It’s not going to be a 100 percent perfect thing that works all the time.”
Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer, said, “It would have been a very, very unusual circumstance where both officers would have to say let’s turn it off and throw our body cameras away. Everything seemed to happen relatively quickly.”
In May, Black Lives Matter organizer and spokesperson Carmen Dixon argued that the cameras do little to correct the problem of police officers unnecessarily resorting to force, especially when departments control the video evidence of an event.
"We saw Eric Garner murdered on videotape, we saw Walter Scott get murdered on videotape," she said. "None of the videotaping has quelled systematic police violence."
But many argue still that the advantages of body cameras — for both officers and the community — far outweigh the negatives.
“It’s the transparency aspect of it,” Doubt said. “Cameras aren’t a panacea and they aren’t going to solve everything. It’s just one point of view and you have to take it as one point of view.”