The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department issued body cameras to all of its patrol officers in September, saying the devices would increase “transparency and accountability” during confrontations.
Since then, city officers have shot and killed four suspects. Only one shooting was captured by the cameras.
Now advocates who support widespread use of cameras by law enforcement wonder if there’s a blind spot in the department’s camera policy.
The cameras aren’t worn by SWAT officers or members of tactical units who apprehend violent criminals. Officers in those units were involved in two shootings since September. One of those shootings has been deemed lawful by the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s office. The most recent remains under investigation.
Another shooting involved an officer who was working a second, off-duty job at Northlake Mall and shot an armed teenager on Christmas Eve. That officer wasn’t authorized to wear a camera for his moonlighting shift. The DA’s office said the shooting was justified.
A fourth fatal officer-involved shooting is the only one that was recorded – of a man who police shot after he fired dozens of rounds at officers in January. Police say the video quality on that body camera footage is poor. Authorities also say that shooting was legally justified.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have refused to release any body camera footage, saying the videos are protected by N.C. personnel laws and are not public records. Typically, the video is seen by CMPD leaders who determine whether an officer followed department policy and prosecutors who try to parse out whether a crime was committed.
CMPD leaders say the department does not have enough money to equip all officers – both on-duty and working secondary employment jobs – with body cameras.
But critics say the lack of footage reflects a flaw in how the department has deployed cameras.
Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the lack of video in CMPD’s most high-risk interactions is an indication that tactical officers like CMPD’s SWAT team should wear the devices.
“I think that they should be without question outfitted with body cameras,” she said. “The need for transparency and accountability is heightened because there's a risk that these encounters are going to be confrontational.”
John Barnett, a Charlotte civil rights leader who lobbied for body cameras after Jonathan Ferrell was killed by Officer Randall Kerrick, in 2013, also is in favor of a body camera policy change. The killing of Ferrell, who is black, by a white officer happened before police here were equipped with body cameras.
“Why would you put the body cameras in place?” Barnett asked. “People are still dying and you can’t even utilize the cameras to the full extent to find out what happened in these shootings.”
Who gets cameras?
The department spent $7.2 million to purchase about 1,400 lipstick-sized body cameras, which went almost entirely to patrol officers.
Maj. Stephen Willis, one of the architects of the department’s camera policy, said CMPD patrol officers responded to more than a million 911 calls last year. By comparison, the SWAT team and the Violent Criminal Apprehension Team responded to hundreds.
“The $7.2 million we asked city council for was a large chunk of change,” Willis said. “We wanted to put the money where the work was being done, and that was in patrol.”
Equipping all officers with body cameras would cost more money at a time when the city has said it can’t find cash for other critical police needs, like fully funding Chief Kerr Putney’s request for more officers. Willis said the department has not determined how much it would cost to equip additional officers with body cameras. The department declined to disclose how many officers are in its SWAT and VCAT units, citing safety concerns.
Police also say requiring officers in tactical units like the SWAT team could compromise officer safety. Police would be required to turn over the body camera footage to defendants as part of the criminal discovery process, Willis said. That footage can reveal police tactics for finding and arresting violent criminals, he said.
Still, Willis said the department is analyzing whether it can afford to have officers working secondary employment jobs wear their cameras. Some sworn officers – like hundreds of the department’s detectives – haven’t been issued body cameras.
Police say to ensure universal coverage, the department would need to have enough cameras to charge them and upload videos between shifts.
‘Work in progress’
The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research and policy organization, wrote a Department of Justice-sponsored paper on body cameras in 2014, as departments across the nation considered the cameras. The 92-page document gives general guidelines and best practices, but doesn’t detail whether officers should wear the cameras when they’re working off-duty jobs or if they’re assigned to SWAT or other high-risk units.
Policies vary across the nation for assigning body cameras to SWAT and other tactical officers and officers working secondary employment shifts. The Washington, D.C. police department requires the cameras on moonlighting jobs and when officers are involved in “high-risk encounters.”
Some N.C. cities require that SWAT and other tactical officers wear body cameras:
▪ Greensboro’s policy also mandates wearing the cameras for “tactical activities,” but makes no mention of moonlighting jobs.
▪ Officers can use the cameras only on their tour of duty, according to the Wilmington police department’s policy, which makes no mention of SWAT and other tactical officers.
▪ A proposed policy in Durham calls for officers to activate the cameras during SWAT-like activities and when officers are working secondary employment jobs.
Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director, said departments across the country universally gave the cameras to patrol officers, who have the most interactions with the public. The results of those initial deployments will determine whether the cameras are expanded to officers in specialized units.
“Certainly SWAT, detective units, and other areas will someday come under the umbrella of body cameras,” Wexler said. “But this is a work in progress, so it would not surprise me to see them introduce them in patrol and then systematically deploy them in other units.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have fatally shot four people in the line of duty since body cameras were fully-deployed in September. Three of the killings have been ruled justified. The most recent one remains under investigation.
▪ Dec. 24. Daquan Westbrook, 19, was fatally shot by Officer Thomas Ferguson, who was working a security job at Northlake Mall. Westbrook had shot a man inside a Journeys store during an altercation and police say he turned and pointed his gun toward Ferguson.
▪ Jan. 3. Germonta Wallace, 30, was shot by a total of eight officers with the department’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Team, which had tracked the murder suspect to a duplex off Remount Road. Police say Wallace and another suspect happened upon investigating officers and that Wallace opened fire.
▪ Jan. 5: Carlton Murphy was shot and killed after firing dozens of rounds at officers responding to a shots fired call at a West Charlotte apartment. Witnesses said Murphy seemed intent on killing officers, taunting: “I just killed one. I can kill more."
▪ April 19: Sylasone Ackhavong was shot and killed by a SWAT officer after a standoff at a convenience store at Tuckaseegee and Little Rock roads in west Charlotte. Ackhavong had threatened to kill himself and pointed his gun toward officers. He was shot and killed by SWAT officers Olin Lester and Derek Rud. Lester was involved in a fatal shooting under similar circumstances in 2013.
Cleve R. Wootson, Jr.