STRUTHERS, Ohio (WKBN) – Police body cameras have benefited both the community and officers when it comes to transparency and a detailed record of officer-involved incidents. But are they being used with their intended purpose?
On April 1, Struthers police officers were involved in a high-speed chase. That chase ended with a Struthers officer fatally shooting the suspect, after reporting that the suspect held up a gun. But it was what was seen afterward — or what wasn’t seen — on police body camera footage that has raised some questions.
WKBN obtained the video and counted at least 18 times in which officers were seen covering their cameras or turning down the sound.
We asked police a question that was asked to us, what’s the point of having cameras if they can be covered up?
“That would be a complete violation of any policy that we have, to block your camera or mute it without an articulable purpose,” said Sgt. Jose Morales.
During the investigation directly following the incident, Youngstown police arrived on the scene to assist. One Youngstown officer was assigned to shadow each Struthers officer. This provided two points of view of police body cameras. One from YPD’s camera and one from the Struthers’ camera.
However, one of the cameras was covered.
In the body camera video from YPD, you can see the Struthers police officer that carried out the shooting, whose name has not been released, zip up his jacket and cover up his body camera. Later, from his own body camera video, you can hear him tell another officer why he zipped it up.
“I’m not unzipping my jacket. I’m freezing,” he said.
Struthers Police Chief Tim Roddy said he understands why the officer zipped up his jacket at that point and said the camera already served its intended purpose.
“I do wanna point out that the original footage of the actual incident, everything was caught on the camera the way it should’ve been, but the emotions afterward, that’s when he pulled his zipper up. He was cold and we wanted to keep them guys separate from each of our officers that were involved,” Chief Roddy said.
But, in the video view from the YPD camera, you can see that Struthers officer point to his camera and then signal to someone else a “zipping up” motion. Then he proceeds to bump his fist against the fist of the officer next to him.
“The scene’s already in control, and there’s no urgency for anything else. As long as it’s on, you can still get the audio. He wasn’t going to be involved with any of the investigation,” Chief Roddy said.
Sgt. Jose Morales, with the Youngstown Police Internal Affairs Department, also had another explanation.
“They have a habit of putting their arms around their vests and resting their arms on the outer vest, like this, ’cause they really don’t know what to do with their hands. They have stuff on their belts, they have things against their pockets,” he said.
Morales is referring to a common stance that officers take when on duty, where they rest their hands on their vests. In some of the videos, the movement of the officer does seem to line up with that stance, as you can see the officer’s arms move in front of the camera.
Still, Morales said covering a camera, even accidentally, is not permitted by his department.
However, in a portion of the video, you hear the man refer to the cameras rolling before the camera is then covered up.
“There’s one thing I discovered that makes this way easier,” the unknown man says to the Struthers officer.
“What’s that?” the Struthers officer asks.
“I can’t say… There’s cameras,” the man responds.
The man then looks over to the Youngstown officer and says, “You know what I’m talking about.”
“What?” the YPD officer responds.
The man repeats what he said, “There’s one fact I noticed that makes this way easier.”
Then, the YPD officer covers his camera.
WKBN asked Morales, what if an officer purposely covers his camera, or purposely turns it off?
“With no articulable reason for it, with no justified reason, that would have to be addressed with some sort of discipline,” he said.
Morales says there are only certain instances that would allow an officer to mute, cover or turn off their cameras.
“A personal phone call or part of the investigation that they’re handling,” he said.
Technically, YPD is still in its testing phase of police body cameras, with 16 officers volunteering to wear them. So, there is no official policy in place yet. However, Morales says they do have guidelines they follow and plan to officially have the program up and running by October.
Morales said they’re still working on their official policy, and after WKBN brought this issue up to him, he added some details about obstructing camera views.
“Officers shall not intentionally or inadvertently obstruct the BWC camera lens with any object or portion of the officer’s body,” it states.
“Because that’s what we wanna do, we want to enhance transparency with the public. We wanna build public trust. It might not be intentional, but we also wanna make sure that whether it be intentional or inadvertent, you’re not doing these things. So, we’re learning from videos like this, this is actually a good training video for us. When we actually do roll this out, watch your arms on your vests,” Morales said.
“My big thought is this is a good educational video, for everyone, about what you can and can’t do with a body cam,” said Dr. Richard Rogers, associate professor of criminal justice at Youngstown State University.
Dr. Rogers says it’s important to take into consideration that officers are people, too, and just because something isn’t shown on camera doesn’t mean there’s foul play.
“How many of us have jobs where every moment where we’re working there is a camera running to record what we do? Officers have stealthy language, they have personal issues, someone’s calling one of the officers while they’re sitting there standing,” Dr. Rogers said.
Currently, there is no state or federal policy for police body camera usage. Each department in Ohio has the authority to create its own policy concerning police body cameras.
WKBN asked Chief Roddy if they have anything in their policy that prohibits officers from covering their cameras.
“I don’t think that there’s anything that… That prohibits… Obviously, we don’t want that to happen, because they’re here for a reason. But in an extenuating circumstance like that, where it’s cold, I would hope that he just wasn’t thinking, ’cause you could always move the camera elsewhere,” Roddy said.
We took a look at some other Ohio cities and their police body camera policies.
Dayton’s policy states, “Personnel shall not intentionally obscure the view of their BWC.” It also says, “Personnel shall periodically check that the lens of the BWC is not unintentionally obstructed.”
Cleveland Heights’ policy was updated in 2018 and states, “Once started, recordings should continue without interruption until the contact ends… If an interruption occurs, the Officer will document the reason for the interruption or termination of the recording.”
Cincinnati’s policy states, “Officers will wear all supplied components of the BWC systems and ensure the BWC is properly positioned to clearly record police activities regardless of uniform attire.”
Back in 2017, a New Jersey officer pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree charge of tampering with evidence after he admitted to tampering with a patrol car’s dashboard camera. The officer stated that he covered the patrol car’s dashboard camera while running a “quick, personal errand.”
In another case in Chicago, however, officers were told to turn off their cameras just eight minutes after a 13-year-old was fatally shot by police.
“It’s hard to write a policy around every situation, which is why we talk about police officers having discretion on things. So, the policy becomes this general framework around which everything is built, and you wanna make the rules pretty clear about what they can and cannot do, but you also want to make sure that they have adequate guidance for when they can break out of that on their own description,” Dr. Rogers said.
As for the officer-involved shooting on April 1, the investigation is still ongoing.