Shooting near Ferguson renews debate over police body cameras

In this Jan. 15 photo, a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles.
The Berkeley, Missouri, police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Antonio Martin at a gas station on Tuesday didn't have his body camera on at the time, according to police.
The black teenager allegedly pointed a gun at the officer before the officer shot him. Though the publicly available surveillance video of the incident might support that claim, it's difficult to discern. That may mean much of the investigation will depend on the recollections of the officer and other eyewitnesses, echoing the case of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
The police department in Berkeley has three body cameras, Mayor Theodore Hoskins said at a press conference on Wednesday, one of which was in the officer's possession. The department recently purchased the cameras, and officers haven't been fully trained in how to use them.
Hoskins deflected concerns over the officer not wearing his body camera, saying that "if it had been six months from today and we had gone through all the training, I would have some concerns." The mayor said officers would face a "severe penalty" for not turning the cameras on in the future.
The police department in Berkeley did not respond to a request for comment.
Police body cameras have been at the center of a debate about documenting police activity after a recent string of highly publicized police killings of black men. Many don't understand why the officer involved in Tuesday's shooting didn't have his camera on, even if his training wasn't complete.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama proposed $75 million for law enforcement agencies across the country to purchase 50,000 body cameras for their officers, and hundreds of departments in the United States have been using body cameras for years. The Los Angeles Police Department, the third largest in America, recently announced it would buy 7,000 body cameras for its officers.

LAPD body cam

Los Angeles Police Sgt. Dan Gomez demonstrates a video feed from his on-body camera into his cellphone during a news conference in Los Angeles on Dec. 16.

"Departments that are already deploying body-worn cameras tell us that the presence of cameras often improves the performance of officers as well as the conduct of the community members," according to a Department of Justice examination of police body cameras published this year. "And when officers or members of the public break the law or behave badly, body-worn cameras can create a public record that allows the entire community to see what really happened."
"I think it protects the public and it protects officers," Thomas Nestel, chief of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Transit Police, toldHDT in the below video. (Watch it for an example of police body camera footage.)

Video evidence of a police shooting or a crime can be less ambiguous than games of he-said she-said, but some critics are concerned that officers will be able to manipulate camera footage to benefit themselves.
Howard Wasserman, a law professor at Florida International University, has written that video evidence is better than no video evidence, but "film and literary theory show that it is a myth that video evidence is an unambiguous, objective, conclusive, singular, and clear reproduction of reality."
And a recent Fusion investigation into five cities where police officers use body cameras found that officers control what to record and have "little to fear" when they violate recording policy. Video of police using force is often either not available or only partially available, according to the report, and officers are rarely fired for not turning on their cameras.
Even in cases when there is clear video, it doesn't necessarily lead to a consensus on what happened. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island, New York this summer after a NYPD officer put him in an illegal chokehold. A man standing nearby got the whole thing on video. Many thought the video was grounds for an indictment of the officer. Others thought the officer's chokehold was justified.
The officer's car in Berkeley did not have its dashboard camera turned on because it is activated by the car's flashing overhead lights, which were off. For now, the only public video of the incident was taken from bad angles by surveillance cameras in the gas station parking lot.

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