Why some of the most controversial police shootings aren't on video

Moments after gunfire erupted at a Boyle Heights intersection, Los Angeles police officers spotted a man walking away from the area.

The officers tried to stop him, the LAPD said, but he ran and pulled a gun from his waistband, prompting police to shoot. The man was struck in the chest and died in an alley.

The officers were wearing body cameras, which are intended to add clarity to controversial moments in policing — including these types of shootings.

The problem: The cameras weren’t on.

Last Saturday’s shooting was at least the second this year in which body cameras worn by LAPD officers weren’t recording when they fired their guns. Since the department launched its ambitious 7,000-camera deployment in August 2015, there have been at least four shootings in which officers didn’t have their cameras on at the time, according to a Times review of LAPD statements and reports.

Those cases underscore a growing predicament as more law enforcement agencies deploy body cameras. While the use of the technology has increased, so have examples in which the cameras weren’t on when they were supposed to be.

L.A. police commissioners have signaled concerns about the issue, directing the LAPD to put together a report explaining how often officers are activating their cameras. So far, 2,800 cameras worn by LAPD officers citywide have collected more than 1 million recordings, including some from a handful of other shootings by police.

LAPD brass acknowledged that failing to turn on body-worn cameras before a critical incident is a concern and said it is trying to remedy the issue. But, officials believe instances in which the cameras are left off are generally the result of a lack of familiarity with the devices or the stress of a dangerous encounter rather than a deliberate decision not to activate them.

Similar failures by officers are bedeviling police agencies around the country.

Last fall in Washington, D.C., demonstrators questioned why an officer did not activate his body camera until after he fatally shot Terrence Sterling, a controversial killing in which some witnesses disputed the police account that the 31-year-old intentionally crashed his motorcycle into a police cruiser before he was shot.

The year before, an Alabama police department attracted national headlines after revealing that an officer didn’t turn on his camera before fatally shooting a mentally ill man who rushed at the officer with a spoon.

In Alameda County, sheriff’s deputies who beat a man in a San Francisco alley in 2015 were wearing body cameras but only one was activated — by accident. A few months later, the Sheriff’s Department made it mandatory to turn on the cameras.

“They advertised, ‘We have these things and they’re going to produce these wonderful results,’ and then the public finds out they aren’t being turned on? You’ve really lost credibility,” said Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor and expert in police accountability. “That’s a very serious problem.”

In Los Angeles, the issue has caught the attention of the Police Commission, the five-person panel that oversees the LAPD and reviews every shooting or serious use of force by officers. At the board’s most recent meeting on Tuesday — three days after Fred Barragan was killed in Boyle Heights — commissioners grilled LAPD brass on what the department was doing to monitor whether officers were properly activating the devices.

One of the commissioners, Steve Soboroff, said it was “increasingly frustrating” to review cases in which police officers used force and didn’t have their cameras on.

“I don’t want to find out that they’re off,” Soboroff said in an interview. “It’s such an important piece of evidence.”

It is unclear how frequently officers aren’t turning on the devices during interactions with the public, whether high-profile or routine. LAPD policy requires officers to turn them on before initiating any investigative or enforcement activity with the public or “as soon as it is practical and safe to do so.”

Assistant Chief Michel Moore said he had seen no evidence that officers are routinely failing to turn on the cameras intentionally, noting that in the “few instances” in which an officer has deliberately done so, the department has taken action. Those officers can face punishment ranging from a reprimand or demotion to suspension and ultimately termination, according to the LAPD’s discipline guidelines.

Moore pointed to a 2015 report — conducted in the first six weeks after the first cameras were deployed — that showed officers in the LAPD’s Mission Division turned their cameras on at the start of 87% of 15 incidents. When responding to calls with their lights and siren on, the report said, they activated the body cameras as required 94% of the time.

Each of the LAPD’s four bureaus currently tracks whether officers activate their cameras at the appropriate time, Moore said. At the Police Commission’s request, LAPD brass is compiling that data to provide a department-wide look at how well officers are following the rules.

Moore said the 2015 results were promising, but acknowledged that in cases in which the cameras aren’t turned on, the public will want to know why — and what happened in the moments not recorded on video.

“We want 100%,” he said. “You may have, out of 100 instances, you have two or three failures. If those failures are critical instances, that can undermine the public’s confidence.”

The primary issue, according to Moore and leaders of the police union, is that officers are still getting used to the devices.

“They haven't caught up to the technology yet,” said Steve Gordon, one of the directors of the union that represents rank-and-file officers.

Gordon said officers are usually able to activate their cameras for routine encounters, when there’s little urgency. That changes, he said, during a high-pressure situation when the officers have to take immediate action — which may end in a shooting.

“When there’s some kind of urgency, when all the senses are firing in their systems … they don’t remember to activate a camera,” he said. “They’re thinking about cars, they're thinking about suspects, they're thinking about a million things.

“That’s what’s coming into question now: Why wasn’t a camera on during a shooting?” he said. “To me, I almost kind of laugh because I think to myself: You’re lucky the officer put their car in park.”

Two weeks after the first cameras were deployed to officers in the LAPD’s Mission Division in August 2015, two of the division’s officers shot and killed a man who had pointed a gun at one of them. Neither turned their new cameras on until after the shooting, according to a report from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. The department gives officers a 90-day grace period as they get used to the technology, so the delay in activation was handled as a “training issue.”

In February 2016, officers in Boyle Heights shot and killed a 16-year-old who was allegedly driving a stolen car and had pointed a sawed-off shotgun at an officer. Beck said in his summary of the shooting that the officers didn’t turn their cameras on until after they fired their guns. One officer was still within the 90-day grace period, but the second had been trained to use the body camera five months earlier, prompting the department to open an investigation into why the camera wasn’t on.

A month ago, an officer shot and killed a man holding a large metal pipe near a downtown L.A. restaurant. The investigation into that shooting is ongoing, but a department spokeswoman said the officer and his partner did not have their body cameras on at the time.

The department is taking several steps to address the problem.

In Central Bureau, stickers inside police cruisers remind officers to “Tell your story. Activate your body-worn.” Soon, recruits in the police academy will be equipped with fake cameras they can practice with so that switching them on comes naturally.

Technological advances could also help. The LAPD is testing technology that could activate the cameras when officers flip the emergency lights of their patrol cars. When the lights turn on, so would the body cameras — similar to how the lights trigger the dashboard cameras mounted inside patrol cars.

The department is also working with Taser International, the body camera manufacturer, in hopes of expanding a 30-second buffer on the devices. Currently, when an officer turns his or her camera on, it automatically begins saving video and audio starting 30 seconds prior to the activation. Taser and the LAPD — along with other agencies — are exploring whether that time frame could be lengthened.

Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the key to having the cameras on during critical, fast-moving incidents is training officers to turn their cameras on from the very start of every encounter — and ensuring that they do so.

“Body cameras don’t help provide accountability or transparency if they’re not on,” he said. “Those high-pressure situations are the ones that they most need to record.”

To read the article in Spanish, click here

kate.mather@latimes.com

@katemather

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