Delays getting OKC police equipped with cameras causes some concerns
Almost three years after the city council approved their use, more than a year after settling a dispute with its union over privacy concerns and several months after receiving two grants to help buy them, Oklahoma City police still are not fully equipped with body cameras.
“We’re doing everything we can to get those on the street as soon as possible,” said Capt. Bo Mathews, a spokesman for the Oklahoma City Police Department. “There have been a few setbacks, but we’re continuing to go forward with it.”
At least one area civil justice activist expressed concern about the slow pace of the project.
“The fact that it has not been completed in what I feel is an extreme amount of time is disappointing,” said the Rev. Sheri Dickerson, a Black Lives Matter OKC co-founder.
“It’s disheartening and it causes concerns in situations … where lives are lost. Families ... don’t have answers to their questions and they should,” Dickerson said.
Body camera video can provide crucial evidence for prosecutors, including whether
officers are justified in their use of force.
Last month, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater cited body camera footage as a key factor in his decision to file a second-degree murder charge against an Oklahoma City police officer involved in the November fatal shooting of a suicidal man in southwest Oklahoma City. It was the first time Prater has charged an Oklahoma City police officer in connection with a fatal shooting since being elected in 2006.
Fits and starts
A number of starts and stops delayed rollout of the full program, Mathews said, including a dispute with the police union, an arbitrator-ordered suspension of the pilot program and delays from the manufacturer when the department upgraded their original cameras.
The Oklahoma City Council first approved the department’s request for the cameras in February 2015. That December, they signed off on a $171,550 contract to buy 102 of the devices.
But the program already had hit its first snag that September when the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 123 filed a grievance against the department’s plan for how the cameras and footage would be used.
Despite the grievance, the department implemented a pilot program in January 2016, outfitting 100 officers with the devices. Less than six months later, that program was suspended after the arbitrator sided with the union and ruled the department’s body camera policy violated the collective bargaining agreement.
Chief among the union’s objections was the perceived ability of supervisors to view an officer’s body camera footage at will.
John George, president of FOP Lodge 123, told The Oklahoman at the time that he was concerned a supervisor might use the video to try to “find something wrong” on a subordinate the supervisor might not like.
In late November 2016, both sides came to an agreement and the program was reinstated with new guidelines.
Officers now are required to activate the cameras when contacting people in public places, before detaining someone or using force, before exiting their patrol cars on high-priority calls, during pursuits or sobriety tests, when they’re asked by a supervisor and “in other situations.”
Officers are not allowed to activate the cameras when interviewing victims or witnesses or “other involved or reporting parties,” in situations where a person would have a reasonable expectation of privacy or in a healthcare facility and “in other situations.”
It wasn't immediately clear what "other situations" might include.
A call for cameras
Equipping police with body cameras came into prominence across the U.S. several years ago after several departments found their use led to a reduction of public complaints about officer behavior. The calls for body cameras only increased following the 2014 fatal shooting of a black man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer.
Brown’s death led to widespread unrest and the family advocated for the use of the cameras in a statement asking people to “join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”
An Oklahoma City police spokesman told The Oklahoman at the introduction of the city’s pilot program that they began looking into bodyworn cameras two years before Brown’s death.
Transparency, accountability and reassuring the public are the fundamental goals of the program, Mathews said.
“The public would feel more relieved and it would help them feel more secure in the things that we report as an agency if you had … video that backs it up every time,” Mathews said.
“There’s a lot of things that people expect, but I think that this would definitely help the relationship between the community and the police department. They would feel safe that we’re reporting everything that we have and investigating everything in a proper manner.”
In December, Prater, the district attorney, charged Sgt. Keith Patrick Sweeney with second-degree murder in the Nov. 15 fatal shooting of Dustin Pigeon, 29. Body-camera footage
worn by another officer captured the encounter and led Prater to determine that Sweeney’s claims that his life were in danger were unfounded.
Prosecutors said Sweeney opening fire on Pigeon was “unreasonable, unjustified and perpetrated in an immediately dangerous manner …” according to a court filing.
Video from the Pigeon shooting seemingly allowed for a faster investigation, with Prater’s decision coming less than a month after the incident, Mathews said.
“It was pretty clear," Mathews said.
That wasn't the case in September when police fatally shot a deaf and mentally disabled man. In that incident, neither Lt. Matthew Lindsey nor Sgt. Christopher Barnes wore a body camera when they encountered Magdiel Sanchez, 34, outside his southeast Oklahoma City home.
Police said Sanchez aggressively approached the officers wielding a short length of steel pipe. Several neighbors who witnessed the incident said they yelled at the officers that Sanchez was deaf and could not understand the commands the officers were giving.
Without body camera video, Prater had to rely on other evidence to determine whether the shooting was justified. The decision took more than three months, with Prater relying on statements from officers and witnesses at the scene and security camera video from a neighboring home that didn’t capture the actual shooting.
He ultimately cleared the two officers, saying their actions were “lawful, reasonable and not excessive.”
“It is due to no fault of the officers that the matter ended violently,” Prater said at a news conference announcing the outcome of his investigation.
As of early January, the department had 160 body-worn cameras in use by active patrol officers. By Feb. 16, the department is set to have 345, enough to outfit an entire work shift of officers, who would then swap the cameras during shift changes.
The devices, a little bigger than a cigarette pack and weighing about 5 ounces, are capable of continuously recording up to nine hours of highdefinition video, which Mathews said is kept anywhere from 60 days to an indefinite period of time.
Including the amount originally spent in December 2015, the program cost is set at $683,325, paid from the city’s general fund, a training fund, sales tax and two federal grants.
Mathews said supervisors are undergoing training this month and all designated uniformed officers and sergeants will be trained on the camera procedures next month.
According to the guidelines agreed upon by the department and union, after training, each officer has a 90-day grace period for unintentionally failing to activate the camera when required. A pattern of failing to activate the camera during the grace period could result in an investigation being launched and potential corrective action.
Saying he understood the frustration on the delays associated in fully implementing the program,
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said it was important to get it right.
“I don’t like it either, but we want to make as few mistakes as possible during the initial implementation. We will be better off in the long run,” Citty said.
Dickerson, of Black Live Matters OKC, said the cameras are a step in the right direction in terms of fostering better relations
between police and the community they serve. However, she said, other actions are necessary.
“It’s not just the camera,” she said.
“I think we’ll be more at ease when the process is actually completed and we know that there has been appropriate training for the body cameras as well as sensitivity training and racial and ethnicity equity training amongst officers.”
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater watches video from an officer’s body cam during a news conference Dec. 5, when he outlined the charge filed against an Oklahoma City police officer in the shooting death of a suicidal person. Police Sgt. Keith Patrick Sweeney, 32, is charged with second-degree murder in Oklahoma County District Court. Sweeney fatally shot Dustin Pigeon, 29, early Nov. 15 after the victim called 911 threatening suicide, police reported. Officers responded to a house in southwest Oklahoma City and found Pigeon holding a bottle of lighter fluid and a lighter, threatening to set himself on fire, according to police records.
Magdiel Sanchez, 34, who was shot and killed by police on Sept. 19, 2017.