Officials have admitted that the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, police officer who last week fatally shot a man having a "mental episode" was equipped with a body camera, but neglected to turn it on prior to the encounter. The episode highlights a key concern about the ability of cameras to promote greater transparency in policing.
An unidentified officer confronted Jeffory Tevis, 50, at an apartment complex on Thursday after receiving a call that Tevis had threatened a neighbor. Police later said it appeared that Tevis, who was wounded when the officer found him, was "suffering from a mental episode and had engaged in self destructive behavior immediately prior to the arrival of the Tuscaloosa police officer.''
Following a brief interaction, police say Tevis began to fight with the officer. During the struggle, the officer deployed his stun gun, which proved ineffective. Then, from a distance of 24 feet, Tevis began charging at the officer with a large metal spoon, according to police and witnesses. The officer fired two shots, striking Tevis in the abdomen.
Tevis, who is white, was pronounced dead at the scene.
In a news conference the following day, Captain Gary Hood, commander of the Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit, and Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Lyn Head claimed that, according to witness accounts, the officer's actions appeared to be an appropriate use of lethal force, but that a grand jury would ultimately decide whether to press criminal charges. Hood also explained that the officer was wearing a body camera that was not turned on at the time.
Authorities later confirmed the detail about the body camera to The Guardian. Police Captain Brad Mason told the paper that, according to department policy, body cameras must be activated “any time there’s going to be enforcement action taken." However, he declined to comment on whether the officer involved in the shooting had violated the policy.
Reached by HuffPost, Mason similarly declined to say whether the officer had breached protocol.
"If an officer violates a policy, it's handled administratively through the chief of police," he said. "We don't give out personnel information."
Mason added that the devices are relatively simple to switch on and off, and noted that officers are required to undergo four hours of training in the use of the equipment.
It is still unclear how investigators will respond to the Tevis case. However, the apparent oversight speaks to a larger criticism of body cameras by police reform advocates who believe the equipment alone will do little to foster transparency. After all, cameras are useless if they're not recording.
As activist and blogger Shaun King writes at Daily Kos, Tevis' killing speaks to the need for cities and police departments to establish strict policies governing the use of cameras, as well as to take disciplinary action against those who fail to turn them on or deliberately deactivate them. King suggests "immediate termination" is an appropriate punishment in such cases.
The Tuscaloosa city council first approved the purchase of police body cameras in 2013, inking a contract to buy 25 devices. More than two years later, however, the department has not equipped all 286 of its officers. Mason told HuffPost that at least 120 officers are currently outfitted with cameras, citing budgetary concerns, which include significant annual data management costs in addition to the initial price tag for the equipment.
Some officers in Tuscaloosa who do have cameras have illustrated the benefits of the equipment when used properly. In July, police released hours of footage, including some from body cameras, documenting the ultimately fatal arrest of Anthony Ware, a 35-year-old black man who died after being pepper-sprayed by officers. Tuscaloosa Police Chief Steven Anderson said at the time that the disclosure was an attempt to demonstrate his department's willingness to be transparent -- and claimed the video proved his officers had acted appropriately. However, there was no footage of the moment Ware was pepper-sprayed, which Anderson said was because some officers who participated in the encounter hadn't been equipped with body cameras.
Elsewhere, it's clear that police departments are distributing body cameras before enacting guidelines for their use. In December, for example, an officer who fatally shot an 18-year-old black teen in Berkeley, Missouri, had been issued a body camera but wasn't wearing it at the time of the shooting. Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins said he wasn't concerned because body cameras were new to the police department and officers hadn't yet received full training.
"In the future and when we get well trained, there will be a severe penalty for an officer who does not turn [their body camera] on," Hoskins said.
It's impossible to know exactly what a body camera would have captured in that incident, or in the fatal shooting of Tevis in Tuscaloosa. Without such footage, however, investigators and the public may be forced to rely heavily on the officer's account, which in a number of recent cases has been neither objective nor accurate.