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Some Federal Agents Lack Body Cameras Despite WH Order

President Joe Biden signed an executive order a year ago instructing federal agents to begin wearing body cameras. Today, the majority of federal agents in Minnesota are still not wearing them.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks before signing an executive order to advance policing and strengthen public safety in the East Room of the White House on May 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Los Angeles Times/TNS
(TNS) — One year ago, on the anniversary of George Floyd's murder, President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing federal agents to begin wearing body cameras — part of a package of changes he said would help mend the public's fractured trust in American law enforcement.

The majority of federal agents in Minnesota are still not wearing them, as another anniversary of Floyd's killing passed last week. That includes FBI agents who fatally shot Chue Feng "Kevin" Yang, a 33-year-old north Minneapolis man, last month during a standoff.

"We are dumbfounded as to why they still don't have body cameras," said civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who has represented victims of police violence across the country, including families of Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

Crump said he's yet to see a civil rights case anywhere where evidence has been captured on a federal agent's body camera.

Biden's order does not set a hard deadline, and a spokesperson for the Justice Department declined an interview with the Star Tribune on the status of the body-camera program and how it's being rolled out in Minnesota. Of the four major federal law enforcement agencies under the Justice Department umbrella, only one — the U.S. Marshals Service — is currently wearing body cameras in Minnesota. Those were implemented in fall 2021, following the killing of Winston Boogie Smith Jr. atop a Minneapolis parking garage by a marshal-led task force. The killing revived scrutiny over the camera policy after no footage captured the shooting.

Minnesota-based agents for the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and Drug Enforcement Agency have not yet been issued cameras, said spokespeople for those local division offices.

"The FBI is working diligently to implement its body-worn camera program," said FBI local Special Agent In Charge Alvin M. Winston Sr., in a statement. "Trust and public accountability are top priorities in the investigations we conduct."

Over the past decade, body-worn cameras have become part of standard protocol in American policing. As of 2016, 80% of large police departments across the country were equipped with them, research from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.

The emergence of the technology ushered in a new era where jurors and the public can watch objective — if not always clear — footage of police encounters.

Though the Justice Department has been slower to embrace the technology for its own agents, arguing it could jeopardize sensitive investigations, it's been a proponent of police using them over the past three presidential administrations. In 2015, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an Obama-era endeavor awarded millions to local police around the country, including three departments in Minnesota, to implement them. In 2019, then-U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr issued a memo announcing a pilot program for local police working on federal task forces to begin wearing body-cameras.

"Even the Trump administration was saying, 'Hey, why don't our federal agents have body cameras?'" said Paul Vanderplow, a retired division chief of special operations for the ATF.

Vanderplow was part of a Justice Department task force starting in 2019. Helping to develop a plan to implement body cameras for federal agents became a full-time job. Vanderplow said he and his colleagues embraced the initiative. He believed the cameras would help dispel the anti-police narratives he'd seen taking root in America.

"At ATF, our mantra is we want you to see what we do and how we do it," he said. "I wanted people to see how professional my guys did their job and how they hold the sanctity of life."

Vanderplow said he's proud of the work he did on the task force, but momentum on the mandate eventually waned and the initiative stalled.

"I don't know if that's because they started seeing the price tag," he said. "I don't know why."

The repeated delays and red tape contributed to him leaving the ATF after 23 years at the end of last year. As director of support services for the Dearborn Heights Police Department in Michigan, he used his research to implement cameras there within just a few months, he said.

"ATF didn't want it, but Dearborn Heights is getting it," Vanderplow said.

The fatal shooting of Smith reignited criticism over cameras.

A warrant had been issued for Smith for illegal firearm possession, according to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Law enforcement said they shot Smith on June 3, 2021, after he drew a gun when they came to arrest him. A passenger in the vehicle, the only other witness, publicly contradicted that account, saying Smith raised his cellphone — not a gun — and the agents never identified themselves.

Because the local deputies who shot Smith were part of a federal task force, they were not allowed to wear body cameras. The absence of footage led to protests across the city from people who didn't believe the police narrative. In the fallout afterward, several local sheriff's departments announced they would pull out of the marshal task force until their camera policy changed.

"There is no reason not to wear body cameras other than to avoid transparency," said Minneapolis-based attorney Jeff Storms, who represented Smith's family. "I think that those federal entities absolutely take the position that they'd prefer legal proceedings to be their word versus a civilian."

A few months later, on Sept. 1, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new policy requiring federal agents to wear body cameras during preplanned operations. Still in the aftermath of protests and riots following Floyd's murder, Garland said the new policy would "promote transparency and confidence, not only with the communities we serve and protect, but also among our state, local and Tribal law enforcement partners who work alongside our federal agents each day."

Biden followed up with an executive order on May 25, 2022. The president instructed federal agency heads to draft policies that meet or exceed Garland's memo within three months. Within a year, Garland and other top Justice Department officials were to complete a study assessing the costs and benefits of officers reviewing camera footage before they finish reports, which would be used to set a standard of best practices for law enforcement around the nation.

The slower rollout inside federal agencies may be a symptom of the complicated nature and colossal size of the Justice Department, said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches criminology at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Unlike local police, federal agents aren't patrolling the streets, responding to 911 calls and interacting daily with the public, so a new policy will require a different set of considerations with new legal questions. The Justice Department also employs about 115,000 people. Managing what will likely be tens of thousands of cameras and storing the vast data is a complicated and expensive undertaking, said Stoughton, who has served as an independent expert on body cameras.

"The phrase 'moving at the speed of government' is real," Stoughton said.

Storms, the civil rights attorney, said body-camera and bystander footage has proven critical to vindicating victims of police violence in the past. That includes David Smith, a 28-year-old who died after a Minneapolis police officer Tasered and then pinned him to the floor of a YMCA in downtown in 2010. The medical examiner listed Smith's cause of death as homicide by asphyxia. This predated Minneapolis police body-cam policy, but one of the officers was wearing a personal camera that captured the incident. Based largely on that footage, Storms helped secure a $3 million settlement and new training for police in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Smith's family.

"There's no compelling explanation for why there aren't body cameras on the feds," said Paul Applebaum, another Minnesota-based civil rights and criminal defense attorney.

Applebaum said the body cameras don't always clearly capture an incident — and sometimes the footage is difficult to obtain — but the absence of cameras pits the word of police against that of a suspect or witness, giving law enforcement an unfair advantage when someone alleges misconduct. "If you don't have a recording of an incident, and you have a client and it's his word against six police officers, you're going to be on the short end," he said.

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