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The Los Angeles Police Department's fatal shooting of a man on the city's infamous Skid Row is bringing new focus to the use of officer-worn body cameras, a widely embraced but largely untested tool aimed at improving law enforcement's relationship with the public.
At least two officers at the scene of the deadly shooting were wearing body cameras, LAPD officials said. Footage from their devices — along with video taken from witnesses and captured by nearby surveillance cameras — will help investigators determine whether the shooting was justified.
A key aspect of that investigation will be officers' claims that the victim, a suspect in a recent robbery, grabbed for one of the cop's sidearm during a struggle at a homeless encampment. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the officer shouted, "He has my gun" several times before shots were fired. Sources told NBC News that three officers fired a total of five shots.
The footage captured by the body cameras "offers an unique perspective that we believe will be crucial to determine the propriety of the the officers' actions," Beck said Monday.
Beck refused to share the footage, saying it "would not be proper" so early in the investigation. But he promised to release it, along with the rest of the evidence, when the probe is complete.
The officers wearing body cameras were apparently part of a months-old pilot program on Skid Row in which the devices were to be tested ahead of a plan to take them city-wide. The Los Angeles police commission still has to approve the policy before it is fully implemented.
The footage captured by the body cameras "offers an unique perspective that we believe will be crucial to determine the propriety of the the officers' actions."
The pilot program was conceived in late 2013 as a way of exploring the best uses of body cameras, and enacting protocols to guide the storage and distribution of footage. Then, last summer, body cameras became a centerpiece of a furious national debate on police reforms, spurred in large part by killings of civilians in Ferguson, Missouri; New York; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the city would rapidly expand its investment in body cameras with the purchase of 800, to be followed by another 7,000 this summer.
The hope is that the cameras will help with investigations of use-of-force encounters just like Sunday's. The mayor also wants to increase transparency and improving public trust, a spokeswoman said.
But there are many implications that remain unexplored, including the impact on people's privacy, how the public and defense lawyers can access the footage and how long footage will be kept before it is destroyed.
Police agencies around the country are grappling with similar issues as they try to figure out the best way to implement body cameras. The devices were among a list of recommendations included in a report released Monday by a task force appointed by President Obama to explore ways to improve relationships between police and the public.
"We need that trust," said Tom Roberts, a deputy chief for the Las Vegas Police Department, which bought 200 cameras after community leaders demanded more ways to hold officers accountable. Every uniformed officer must now record every contact with the public. "We need that support from our community, and if this raises that, then that's where we need to go."
Michael White, a criminology professor at Arizona State University who has studied the expanding use of body cameras, said the popularity of the devices has exploded since last summer. There are now between 5,000 and 6,000 law enforcement agencies that have started using, or plan to use, body cameras. At the same time, more than two-dozen state legislatures are considering bills dealing with body cameras, including some that would mandate their use by all police officers, White said.
Cameras have the long-term potential to help cut down on civilian complaints and lawsuits, speed up criminal cases and reduce paperwork, White said. "When you have a body worn camera, you can have a complete review of those cases within a couple of days," he said.
That is why he sees Sunday's case an important test of body cameras' potential to ensure speedy and fair use-of-force investigations. "It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out," White said.
L.A. Police Commission President Steve Soboroff told NBC News that it was unfair to anyone involved in the shooting "to make statements and jump to conclusions before the facts are known." He noted that the LAPD has multiple watchdogs that will become involved in the investigation — including an independent police commission and an independent inspector general.
—With Tom Costello