The policy allows officers in the Indiana city to use their discretion when it comes to recording interactions with the public. A fatal officer-involved shooting Sunday left questions a video record might have answered.
(TNS) — The fatal shooting Sunday by a South Bend police officer was the exact type of scenario in which footage from a body-worn camera could have helped sort out the facts.
Instead, the shooting exposed the limitations of the city’s body camera program, just a year after the South Bend Police Department issued the devices to all of its patrol officers at a cost of $1.5 million.
With a policy that gives officers discretion on when to use the cameras, and without technology to automatically start recording when an officer draws or fires their weapon, the city ended up with no footage of the confrontation between Sgt. Ryan O’Neill and Eric Logan, the 54-year-old man who was shot and killed after he allegedly approached the officer with a knife.
O’Neill was responding to reports of someone breaking into vehicles when he spotted Logan partially inside a parked car. Officials have said O’Neill’s body camera was not running when he approached Logan because the cameras automatically record only if an officer exits his vehicle while the red and blue overhead lights are activated. The officials said O’Neill also did not manually activate the camera because at first he intended only to check Logan’s identity to see if he owned the car.
It’s unclear whether O’Neill followed department policy by not starting his camera Sunday morning. A department spokesman said that question has yet to be addressed by an internal investigation. Chief Scott Ruszkowski declined requests for an interview Tuesday.
On Tuesday evening, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s office announced the police chief had issued a new general order that “officers should activate their body cameras during all work-related interactions with civilians.”
“This step is intended to confirm community expectations that police encounters with civilians will be recorded,” Buttigieg said in a statement.
The directive apparently expanded the requirements for officers to use the recorders. Previously, the department’s policy on the use of body cameras called for officers to “activate the recorder during all enforcement stops and field interview situations, and any other time the (officer) reasonably believes that a recording of an on-duty contact may be useful.”
Those rules were open to interpretation.
Sgt. Dan Demler, a member of the South Bend Fraternal Order of Police executive committee, said Tuesday an officer in O’Neill’s position would not have reason to expect a confrontation.
“I wouldn’t have had my camera on at that point,” Demler said. “At any time, I could be talking to somebody and it goes south, but hindsight is 20/20.”
Even the specific conditions spelled out in the department policy could leave room for uncertainty. Demler said he considered an “enforcement stop” to be when an officer has reason to believe someone has committed an infraction or crime. But he was unable to define a “field interview.”
“I don’t know if our manual has ever given a true definition of a field interview,” Demler said.
The new order issued by Ruszkowski added more rules, notifying officers that “all enforcement and investigative contacts, traffic stops (including backup), field interviews, and self-initiated contacts shall be recorded.”
James Mulvaney, an instructor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a policy with too much leeway can create an unfair expectation for officers to think about their body cameras in fast-changing scenarios.
“Leaving it to the officer’s full discretion invites problems,” Mulvaney said. “If you’re in a situation that’s suddenly fraught with tension, we don’t really want them to think about the body cam.”
Mulvaney said one solution is to equip officers with body cameras that are more likely to start recording automatically. Some cameras start recording when an officer draws his weapon, or when shots are fired.
BodyWorn, the brand that supplied the South Bend Police Department’s cameras, offers just those types of technology, according to its website. It advertises both gunshot detection and holster that activates the body camera when an officer draws a gun. When the cameras detect gunshots, they also retroactively record the prior two minutes.
In an email Tuesday, South Bend police spokesman Ken Garcia said the department’s cameras are not equipped with gunshot detection. The cameras automatically record only when the light bar is running or when an officer is traveling at a certain speed, Garcia said. A spokeswoman for BodyWorn’s parent company, Georgia-based Utility Associates, declined to comment on the specific model of camera provided to South Bend police.
Two South Bend Common Council members expressed frustration at the failure to capture Sunday’s shooting on video.
“I’m concerned and disappointed,” said council member Tim Scott. “You never know when a deadly situation will occur, and I’d rather have plenty of blank video and err to the side of having the cameras on. It not only protects the officer, but the citizen, and helps tell the story.”
If the department’s policy does not require the use of body cameras in a situation like Sunday’s shooting, Scott said, he wants the city to discuss changing the policy.
“My personal opinion is, I would rather see body cameras on as much as possible,” Scott said, “and not an officer picking and choosing, ‘will this be a safe situation or a dangerous situation?’”
Another council member, Oliver Davis, said he was outraged when he learned Logan’s shooting was not recorded, whether because of policy, technological limitations or an officer’s choice.
“We spent $1.5 million, and now you tell me it’s not working?” Davis said. “That’s a misuse of taxpayer funds.”
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