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After An Officer-involved Shooting, Police Body Camera Video Isn't Always Available. In Tallahassee There Are Two Main Reasons.

A police officer pushes his finger on a button worn on this shirt pocket to active his body worn camera.
City of Tallahassee
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https://www.talgov.com/publicsafety/tpd-technology.aspx
Officer Damon Miller demonstrates how TPD's body cameras are activated in a screenshot from a video produced in 2018 by the City of Tallahassee

There is no body camera video available from the night earlier this year when Louisville police entered Breonna Taylor‘s home and shot her to death. Earlier this month, police failed to turn on their body cameras during an incident that resulted in the shooting death of David McAtee outside his Louisville restaurant. Now, in Tallahassee, Police Chief Lawrence Revell has indicated it could be that no body camera video is available in the case of Tony McDade. WFSU looked into how body cameras are used in Tallahassee and why sometimes video isn’t released.

Hours after Tony McDade died in an officer involved shooting, Tallahassee police held a press conference at the scene. Chief Lawrence Revell was quick to explain footage from the officer’s body camera would not be immediately released.

We can’t release any information that will taint a grand jury’s decision on these. They have to be fair and impartial," Revell said." So you can’t put that out and get public comments on them one way or the other and that might sway a grand juror.”

“Even if there is rumor or need for a shooting, then why aren’t you releasing the video tapes or showing us any more evidence about the situation?"
Delilah Pierre

A TPD officer shot McDade, a transgender masculine person, while responding to a call about a nearby stabbing. McDade is believed to have killed Malik Jackson before police say McDade brandished a gun outside a responding officer’s police car. That officer shot and killed McDade. The case quickly gained national attention.

The Tallahassee Community Action Committee is calling for the release of the body camera footage from the incident. Activists hope the video might shed further light on the situation.

“Even if there is rumor or need for a shooting, then why aren’t you releasing the video tapes or showing us any more evidence about the situation? If you are going to murder someone it needs to be transparently known by the entire community," said Delilah Pierre who works with the Tallahassee Community Action Committee.

Law Enforcement Says Releasing Body Camera Footage Early Could Influence Investigations And Jurors.

Police maintain since the shooting is part of an ongoing investigation they’re unable to give out information about the video—including whether it exists. Revell says local State Attorney Jack Campbell has called for any video to be shielded from public view until the conclusion of a grand jury trial.

“State Attorney Campbell has been very consistent on his answer to that in saying that he will not release any video from these body worn cameras until after the grand juries," Revell said. "I know there’s been a call for some of the other shootings as well. But he’s put a letter out on that and has been very clear that none of that will be released until after the grand jury and he’s been very explicit to the city and us at the department to say, you’re not to release it either.”

A 2019 study by the Associated Press found police departments regularly withhold body camera and dash cam video showing officer involved shootings—often claiming releasing the videos could compromise ongoing investigations into those shootings. Meanwhile, Revell has suggested it’s possible no body camera video from McDade’s shooting exists.

Officers Sometimes Fail To Activate Their Body Worn Cameras. Police Say That's Expected When An Officer Faces An Immediate Threat.

“Again, not speaking specific to this, if there’s a situation where an officer fears for their life in an immediate situation, and it’s in policy, we don’t expect them not to address that threat just because they need to turn on their camera,” Revell said during the press conference immediately following the incident.

"When an officer pulls a taser out, or activates a taser, that will automatically activate the camera, because that’s one less thing they have to do and worry about while running. We’re also in the process of all officers being outfitted with that same technology on their gun."
Damon Miller

TPD declined a recent request for an interview to talk about local body camera policies, but earlier this year WFSU talked with outgoing TPD spokesman Damon Miller about how the city’s body cameras work.

Miller says TPD officers have technology that automatically starts their cameras recording when they unholster their tasers. In January, he said TPD was working on getting that same technology for the officers' guns.

“Sometimes things happen so quickly, in that split second, you won’t have time to bark out a command like 'put your hands up' or 'stop running.' So when an officer pulls a taser out, or activates a taser, that will automatically activate the camera, because that’s one less thing they have to do and worry about while running. We’re also in the process of all officers being outfitted with that same technology on their gun so when you pull your gun out of the holster it will automatically be activated as well,” Miller said.

Miller says the station’s policy is that an officer’s camera will always be on while he’s working. But that doesn’t mean it’s always recording.

“There were some concerns with officers wearing them—like what happens when I go to the bathroom, I don’t want everyone seeing. So there were some parameters put in place. Whenever an officer is on duty, the camera shall be on and we’ll activate whenever we have interaction with citizens,” Miller said.

That’s what Revell says could have happened in McDade's case.

“The body worn cameras are set up to be on when the officer is driving around and by on it means the power pack is on," Revell said. "You’re not going to be recording all that time because you couldn’t store all that footage and there’s private things the officers do, and private conversations the officers have that are protected by law. But again, the officers are required, when possible, when time allows, to activate that camera. And that’s done by a tap.”

A study with the the U.S. Department of Justice and Police Executive Research Forum recommends departments require officers to activate their cameras when responding to any calls for service. Activist organizations say that means officers would have their cameras recording in the car on the way to an incident--reducing the chance an officer would be caught off guard by a threat and unable to start their recording when arriving at the scene.

Editor's Note: After this story aired TPD released redacted reports that indicate at least some of the officers who responded to the scenes of Malik Jackson's stabbing and Tony McDade's shooting recorded body camera footage. It's unknown whether those videos show the officer-involved shooting of Tony McDade.