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Body camera video of Arizona police officer's killing stirs ethical debate

Arizona police officer's body camera captured his shooting death by a suspect who then killed himself

The video footage is raw, showing Flagstaff, Ariz., police Officer Tyler Stewart chatting with a man accused of breaking a couple things in his girlfriend's apartment a day earlier. That's what body cameras do: capture the daily work of police officers up close.

"Do you mind if I just pat down your pockets real quick? You don't have anything in here?" Stewart, 24, can be heard asking the suspect, Robert Smith, 28, who had his hands jammed in his pockets. They had been talking in the cold for a few minutes outside Smith's home Dec. 27.

"No, no — my smokes," replies Smith, who had been chuckling moments earlier. Smith then draws a revolver so fast that the gun is almost a blur. The video stops. Stewart is shot five times before Smith fatally shoots himself.

The graphic video altered the usual conversation about body cameras and police accountability by capturing — up close — a polite conversation that instantly turned into a deadly encounter in which the officer had little chance to react.

The Flagstaff Police Department released body camera footage this week in response to several media public records requests.

For several months, nationwide calls for police to wear body cameras have grown as activists and some public officials have pushed for answers after several high-profile use-of-force incidents, including the fatal police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson Mo.

In Albuquerque this week, body camera footage was used by prosecutors in their decision to seek charges against two police officers after they fatally shot a homeless man while he appeared to be turning away during a standoff.

"That's what these cameras are for," said Tim McGuire, who teaches ethics at the Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "They're for accountability, and they're designed to minimize controversy and educate the public about how these things come down."

But the Arizona footage raises questions about the balance between the public's right to know and privacy concerns for officers and bystanders as authorities around the country wrestle with how to regulate the rapidly spreading technology.

"We are currently crafting or looking at legislation that may very well discuss this," Levi Bolton Jr., executive director of the 14,000-member Arizona Police Assn., said Wednesday shortly before a meeting to discuss body cameras at Arizona's state Capitol.

"We acknowledge that the public and the media should have access to this information," Bolton said of body camera footage. However, he was concerned about the appropriate timing for its release and whether such footage should be regulated so that confidential informants, undercover officers or victims of sex crimes are not identified.

"We don't have the answers, but there are a lot of things to contemplate, and this requires some slow and thoughtful consideration from a lot of people," Bolton said.

The Flagstaff Police Department redacted the footage to end before the shots were fired. Portions were broadcast on several television stations Tuesday, and one station uploaded the full footage to YouTube.

"We have to abide by the Arizona state law when it comes to releasing public records information," said Flagstaff Deputy Chief Walter Miller, who said officials sought legal advice before determining that they had to release the video under Arizona law.

"However, we also believe there are some privacy concerns and some basic respect concerns," Miller said. "This video is depicting a young officer's last moments on this earth, and he was tragically killed. I would like to see, personally, some legislative reform that allows us not to release certain videotaped reports to the media.... I would rather that the public didn't see that out of sheer respect for the officer and his family and the grieving officers here at the Flagstaff Police Department."

Miller said police notified Stewart's family before the video was released and gave Flagstaff officers a chance to watch the video and ask supervisors questions before they saw it on the local news.

A spokesman for Stewart's family, several of whom are in law enforcement, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

At least three Arizona television stations that broadcast the footage did so with warnings that the scenes were disturbing. Before showing the video, broadcasters for 3TV Phoenix told viewers that the newsroom debated the newsworthiness of showing the video.

"It's one thing to hear about how dangerous it is to be a police officer," one 3TV anchor explained on air. "It's another thing to see it firsthand." The other two stations, ABC 15 and FOX 10, included information on how to donate money to Tyler's family in their Web stories showing the footage.

McGuire, the journalism professor, questioned the department's decision to cut the video before releasing it, however, saying that the decision on whether to broadcast should be left to journalists to ensure accountability.

"What we're looking for is accountability on both sides: If there's a bad guy, we want to know there was a bad guy," McGuire said. "I thought this [video] was incredibly illuminating.... It was an outrageous thing to witness, but I feel I'm better informed about the challenges [police] face."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @mattdpearce

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