Digital Communities

After Shooting, Alabama Cops Face Details of Body Cam Policy

An officer recently killed an innocent man in a mall during an active shooter event in Alabama. Amid calls to release body camera footage from the incident, police are now facing down the details of their policies.

by Donna Thornton, The Gadsden Times / January 7, 2019

(TNS) — Events Thanksgiving night at the Galleria in Hoover, Ala., proved tragic.

Someone fired a gun in a crowded shopping mall. Two people were injured. As law enforcement officers responded to the scene of the shooting, they encountered an armed man; he was shot and killed. Initially, it was reported that he was the suspect, but authorities quickly learned he was not. He was a shopper at the mall, and had a concealed carry permit for his weapon.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is investigating, and the shooting brought protests to the City of Hoover. Part of the protest has been a call to release body camera footage from the officers involved — something the investigating agency has not done.

For the most part, local police don't want to comment about the Hoover case, citing a lack of information about it. However, some were willing to talk about body cameras, their policies for using them and their place in modern policing.

Most local agencies equip officers with cameras, and count them as essential equipment.

The Gadsden Police Department's officers have used body cameras for years. Sgt. John Hallman said since the cameras have been in use, the number of citizen complaints against officers have dropped.

"Everyone knows they are being recorded," Training Officer Sgt. Jay Johnson said — both the officers and the people they encounter.

That knowledge can prevent people from claiming something was said or done that was not, and it also can make officers more mindful of what they say and do.

It is important, Capt. Paul Cody said, to understand the limits of what is seen on camera. The view shown by the camera may not capture all that an officer sees and hears around him, or record all that creates an officer's perception of a situation. There also can be malfunctions with the equipment, as with any technology. There have been cases — some high-profile ones in other areas — where there were problems in the way an officer reacts to a situation.

"Anything an officer does is reactive," Cody said.

The camera captures what's in front of it, but an officer could be looking in another direction, he said. Regardless, it takes a second — really 1.5 seconds, studies have shown — to process and react to what you see. That's something that can get lost when people look at body camera recordings like an action movie, where everything is scripted in advance.

In local departments using body cameras, the policy is for patrol officers to turn on the camera at each encounter with the public — for the taking of reports, for traffic stops, for any encounter.

"To me, the body cameras keep everybody honest," Glencoe Police Chief Alan Kelly said. "I can remember when an officer's word was everything. Now, if there's a image, people want to see it.

"It's evidence to every complaint voiced," Kelly said. "They say there are three sides to every story. To me, the body camera is what falls between the two sides."

Attalla Police Chief Dennis Walker said his department's officers are required to wear body cameras and to have the camera recording any interactions with the public. "We use them as evidence all the time," Walker said.

Southside Chief Chris Jones said his department has used body cameras for about 10 years — long enough to have upgraded to a much better version. Like Kelly, he remembers when an officer's word and testimony in court was enough. Now, he said, people seem to expect video evidence to back it up.

When high-profile incidents occurs, it might seem that rolling the film will resolve questions. But police say they have to be concerned with more than public relations in such cases — that when digital evidence could be part of a court case, it should be guarded just as other evidence is.

Hallman said in a case with many witnesses, it takes time to interview them all. He said if body camera footage is released publicly, what the camera saw could change witnesses' perception or recollection of what they saw at the time from their own vantage point.

A benefit to current body cam capabilities, both Gadsden officers and Rainbow City Chief Jonathon Horton said, is that the digital images recorded by body cams are stored in the cloud. No one within a department can get to the images to alter them even if he or she wanted to, Horton said.

Horton faced an incident where he decided to release body camera footage of an encounter between police and a man after a traffic stop in July 2017. Friends of the man involved took to social media accusing Rainbow City officers of throwing the man off a bridge on Black Creek Parkway near the Interstate 759 ramps. The man had injuries from falling onto the rocks below the bridge.

With officers being bashed on social media, Horton decided to release body camera footage that showed what officers already explained: that the man fled from them after a traffic stop and jumped over the bridge to get away from them.

"It immediately quelled the outrage," he said, that people were expressing against the police. "A lot of people came and apologized after seeing the footage."

It was a unique circumstance, Horton said, not one that involved a fatality, or the potential for serious criminal charges.

"With an ongoing investigation, I completely understand (a department) trying to keep everything pulled together until they have answers," he said.

There is another question: If a department releases body cam images in one incident, should it withhold such images in another?

"You release the video when it exonerates your officer," one police officer said, "but are you willing to release it when it doesn't?"

Hokes Bluff Police Chief Mitchell Hill said his department uses cameras, but has not had a serious incident where evidence from them came into play. Still, any encounter with the public could turn into a serious incident. Hill said the department policy is to turn cameras on whenever there is contact, and if there is a problem with the camera, to report it to dispatchers so that it can be noted.

Different chiefs have different ideas of where cameras should be worn. Johnson said Gadsden's officers have magnetic body cameras that can attach to their protective vests in the middle of the chest.

Jones said Southside officers have the option to wear cameras where they see fit, but he believes positioning them on an officer's chest is best. "To me, that gives you the face-to-face view," he said.

Kelly said Glencoe will likely update its cameras before long, and he would like to use a camera mounted on glasses.

"That shows what an officer sees," he said. "If he turns his head to check traffic at an intersection, you see what he sees."

In the years since body cameras have been in use locally, most departments are on a second generation of hardware and have seen tremendous upgrades in the quality of images the cameras provide.

Like any technology, the equipment is expensive, and so is cloud storage for the digital images recorded by the cameras. The higher the resolution of the images, the more storage space required.

Cody said the GPD has been fortunate that the mayor and City Council have supported the department in keeping equipment up-to-date. Most chiefs echoes that sentiment; they, too, have the support of their muncipal governments. City leaders may see it as a wise investment — an ounce of prevention to stave off paying for a pound of cure, should an officer be falsely accused of brutality or misconduct.

"You can pay now," Cody said, "or pay later," in court.

©2019 The Gadsden Times, Ala. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.