Activists Voice Support for More Body Cameras in Toledo, Ohio

The Toledo Police Department purchased its first set of body cameras in 2015 and has expanded their use since. But many want to see more officers wearing them, and more of their recordings made public.

Toledo, Ohio
Toledo, Ohio
Shutterstock/Jacob Boomsma
(TNS) — When a Toledo police officer shot and killed Lamar Richardson in July 2018, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and Police Chief George Kral called a 10 p.m. news conference and released dashboard camera footage of the incident the same day it happened.

Tensions between citizens and police weren’t as high nationwide two summers ago as they are now, but the police killing of Mr. Richardson, a 25-year-old black Toledoan, brought several hundred people to the streets in North Toledo. There were rumors swirling about what happened, and the crowd was demanding answers.

The unedited dashboard camera footage showed Mr. Richardson, who police were pursuing as a suspect in a series of convenience store robberies, was holding a gun when he was shot. Although the gun wasn't pointed at officers, Chief Kral said at the time "that gun could be raised at an instant," and officers have only seconds to respond.

Toledo City Councilman Larry Sykes said the standoff between upset residents and Toledo police officers was growing heated by the minute that night, and the city’s decision to release the footage “settled the community” because they could see for themselves exactly what transpired.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz said he thinks back to that night a lot.

“I believe that our decision that night to release this information immediately, within four or five hours of the event, I think it played an important role in preventing a riot and preventing the worst violence that we are seeing now across the country,” he said. “I think what Toledo did that night could be an example to other police departments in how to proceed in events like this.”

Nearly two years later, the mayor is facing mounting pressure to release body camera footage from May 30, when Toledo police officers clashed with demonstrators protesting police misconduct in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Officers used tear gas, rubber bullets, and wooden bullets to disperse crowds.

The department is investigating two officers for their conduct on that day — one of whom can be seen in cellphone video hitting a protester with his helmet — and the mayor said body camera footage will not be released until that process is complete. He believes the investigation will be done by the end of July.

“If someone is making the connection, ‘You gave that video in five hours,’ it’s because in this case we are knee deep in an investigation of potential wrongdoing that simply didn’t exist in 2018,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz said. “At the end of the process, all the information will be released. But unfortunately doing it any sooner will jeopardize the investigation that is occurring today.”

While dashboard cameras have been in use for nearly 20 years, body-worn cameras have become increasingly common at law enforcement agencies as taxpayers and lawmakers demand more accountability from their public safety forces. The Toledo Police Department purchased its first set of body cameras in 2015 and has expanded their use since.

But many want to see more officers wearing them, and more of their recordings made public. Local activists and some elected officials are pushing for all officers to be equipped with the cameras.

“The use of body cameras needs to be emphasized,” said Zakiya Hatten with Toledo Together, a social justice advocacy group created by University of Toledo students. “It will hold them more accountable.”

Mr. Sykes on Tuesday will introduce legislation that, if passed by city council, would mandate all Toledo police officers wear and turn on body cameras, unless doing so would jeopardize their safety or the safety of others.

“The SWAT team doesn't wear cameras, nor does the gang squad. They should wear cameras,” Mr. Sykes said.

He said the cameras protect the officers, protect the citizens, and protect taxpayer dollars that might otherwise be spent on lawsuits he believes could be avoided by making department video public.

Governor Mike DeWine also called for all police officers and state troopers to have body cameras.

It’s an effort both Chief Kral and Mayor Kapszukiewicz say they support.

“Body cams protect police and they protect the citizens, and they produce an accountability that we all should demand. I want every single one of our officers to have body cameras as soon as possible,” the mayor said. “They are a crucial part of the trust we’re trying to build.”

But the technology is only as good as the policies behind it, said Karhlton Moore, executive director of Ohio’s Office of Criminal Justice Services, which helps staff the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board.

The board developed standards it recommends law enforcement agencies follow when implementing a policy for body cameras. The key takeaway, Mr. Moore said, is that the agency should have a clear policy, communicate that policy to the public, and then be consistent with it.

“So if it’s up to an individual officer as to when they turn their camera on, that’s not going to have the impact that you want. If footage is never released or never available, that's not going to have the impact you want,” he said. “So the policy determines whether it creates or improves trust in the community.”

And that policy is up to each agency to set.

There have been several instances in the last month of use of force by police in the Toledo area, and both the press and the public have called for the release of department video that shows what happened. Each agency has handled those requests differently.

• Toledo officials say body camera footage from the May 30 protests is part of an internal investigation and won’t be released until that is complete.

• The Ottawa County prosecutor released body camera footage from two incidents involving Put-in-Bay police officers, one on June 6 and one over Memorial Day weekend. Both videos are nearly 30 minutes long.

• The Sylvania Township Police Department directed all requests for body or dashboard camera footage from a June 8 officer-involved shooting to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which is reviewing the incident. The bureau has not yet released the footage.

• Michigan State Police on June 16 released surveillance video from a nearby business that shows an officer-involved shooting June 15. The video is one minute and 15 seconds.

• The Oregon Police Department on June 18 released two videos, each about five minutes, that captured an officer-involved shooting June 13.

UT student Jayla Few, a member of Toledo Together, said the policies that govern body and dashboard camera footage need to be part of the local conversation about police reform, along with the push to have more officers use them.

She believes the court system is inclined to believe a police officer’s word over the word of a suspect, and having official footage can validate what took place during a traffic stop or an officer’s response to a 911 call.

Ms. Few said officers who misuse their cameras or intentionally block them should face discipline. She also wants police departments to release full videos when footage is requested, not just short clips.

“The recorder should be on all the time. It shouldn’t stop,” she said.

William Balling, chief of police in Sidney, Ohio, is president of the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police and a proponent of body cameras. They promote accountability and transparency and cut down on citizen complaints, he said.

But both he and Mr. Moore said citizen privacy and the expense of the technology must be part of the conversation.

The cameras themselves are the least expensive part of the operation, Chief Balling said. The ones TPD use cost about $650 each. The larger cost is the storage space, and the personnel costs to review videos before releasing them to the public.

“The true cost of the system is the back end. If officers are on the scene of a situation, the call lasts for an hour, and there’s four officers on the scene, then you have four hours of high-definition video that you have to store, and that takes up a lot of space,” Chief Balling said. “I know a lot of people say they should be on from start to finish of a shift. That takes an immense amount of data storage space, and the expense is immense.”

He said he knows more departments in Ohio would like to expand their use of body cameras, but they simply don’t have the budget. In Toledo, citizen groups and some council members are calling for a reassessment of how the police department spends its money.

Privacy and accuracy is also a concern, Chief Balling said. Almost every aspect of a body camera video is public record, but he worries about releasing footage that would re-victimize someone whose traumatic experience was captured when officers respond to a call for help.

State public record laws do allow departments to redact footage that would identify an alleged victim of sex offenses, stalking, or domestic violence.

Chief Balling also cautioned that the cameras can only capture one vantage point of what may be a complicated situation.

“I’m very much an advocate for the body cameras. I like what has happened with our department with them,” he said. “It’s a very good thing, but it’s been very expensive and very time consuming.”

©2020 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.