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NOLA Police Hope Body Cameras Provide Important Evidence


The grand jury's decision not to indict Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner's death came in a week where President Obama called for millions of dollars in federal funding so police departments can purchase body cameras. Eric Garner's deathly encounter with police was captured on video by a bystander and it raises the question of what difference body cameras might make in any subsequent prosecution. The New Orleans Police Department bought body cameras for its officers this spring. Susan Hutson is the city's independent police monitor. She joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN HUTSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What's the idea behind these cameras? Are they supposed to document or deter?

HUTSON: Well, we've heard that they will deter, but from my perspective it's about evidence in a particular case. A lot of times in the cases that we look at whether they're misconduct cases or use of force cases, there's vastly different stories about what happened between the citizen and the police officer. So we want that independent witness to tell us what happened out there at the scene.

SIMON: Are there specific instances you can tell us about that we might be able to learn from this week?

HUTSON: Well, I can tell you about specific instances in New Orleans where having a camera has made a difference. Like, there are cameras in cars here. There are cameras on Tasers. And in one particular incidence before they rolled out the body cams here in New Orleans, there was an officer involved shooting in which an officer was carrying his own camera and it was a little pen camera and it was a service of a warrant. And they ended up shooting an unarmed young man and because that video and audio were available - it did not actually videotape the shooting, but there was audiotape of the shooting - that officer ended up being held accountable legally and he is serving time right now for that - for the death of that young man.

So we know that they're a piece of evidence - a very important piece of evidence - but as we've talked about here in my office, they are not a solution to the problems between troubled communities and the police officers who come into those communities.

SIMON: What is your guideline? When do you tell an officer he or she has to start recording?

HUTSON: NOPD policy requires them to record the entire encounter until any police action has ceased. So what we're finding out though sometimes the cameras aren't on. Sometimes they aren't wearing the cameras. And those are clear violations, but then there were also supervisors telling officers things like turn it off during, you know, sensitive matters, but not defining what a sensitive matter could be.

We're also hearing complaints that only parts of interactions are being recorded. That's one of the things we're hearing now. So the misconduct is occurring off-camera, but then they're recording, you know, perfectly professional encounters on camera. So that's one of the things we're also hearing now. And...

SIMON: That's a big complaint and, of course, you wouldn't have any - ironically or incongruously - you wouldn't have a video record of that misconduct, but you would have a video record of them doing it right.

HUTSON: Exactly. Now, there is some ways to crosscheck in those cases 'cause there are also in-car cameras and those come on when the lights come on. So they can turn those off too, but ideally those will still be running at least to capture some of the conversation before the actual body camera comes on. So there may be some ways to check, but, like you said, by and large we're not going to be able to provide any oversight over that. So that's very troubling for us as well.

SIMON: Of course, for the obvious reasons, we're emphasizing right now the questions of police conduct that might be brought into having a video record. But I wonder if there are any individual citizens who feel uncomfortable about the police having a video of them. Let's say, if they're stopped for something and turn out to be totally innocent.

HUTSON: We do have people say that they are uncomfortable being videotaped, but usually it's in the context of witnesses who say, you know, I do want the New Orleans Police Department to tell the community that I'm informing and I'm providing information here. It could be dangerous to me. There are a lot of retaliation murders here in New Orleans.

And so people have to stay and live in these communities in which these incidents are occurring and they don't want the public to know, or these actors to know, that they may be involved in providing some information to the New Orleans Police Department.

SIMON: I wonder if there are any lessons you do or do not draw from events over the past couple of weeks, especially in Staten Island where, of course, Officer Pantaleo was not indicted.

HUTSON: Right, well, you bring up a good point, which I think goes to the point I was making before that they are just a piece of evidence. You still have a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly sides with police officers. It allows them to go before grand juries, whereas most members of the public are just arrested and taken to jail and charged. It allows them to have the benefit of the doubt most times.

And so we have to look at our system of justice and see is it working? And cameras don't solve that. That's the kind of dialogue we're having right now about Ferguson and Staten Island as a community, as a country.

SIMON: Susan Hutson is the independent police monitor for the city of New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUTSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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