After Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9, 2014, police departments around the country – including those in Ohio – began investing in body-worn cameras. The devices promised increased transparency, accountability and an unbiased version of the truth.
Close to five years later, our 5 On Your Side investigation uncovered serious concerns about how most police departments fail to track when and how officers record videos on their body-worn cameras, failing to guarantee critical interactions are captured on camera.
Failure to record
“I’m very, very lucky to be alive,” Jamon Pruiett said.
On Oct. 1, 2017, he and his brother, LaTrent Redrick, were each struck at least six times when Akron police officer John Turnure shot them outside a downtown Akron nightclub.
This surveillance video shows the officer-involved shooting and aftermath outside the Akron nightclub.
“That definitely was the toughest moment of my life,” Redrick said. “My mind is racing, ‘Am I going to die?’”
Since 2016, Akron police officers have been equipped with body-worn cameras. But what Turnure saw that caused him to open fire on the brothers remains a mystery because he failed to press record on his body camera until the shooting was over.
After he started recording, Turnure can be heard telling Redrick to “F#%* off” as he lies on the ground waiting for an ambulance.
“I wish it existed,” said Pruiett, when asked about the missing body camera video. “It would be the truth of what actually happened.”
‘Missing the whole point’
“Obviously, it’s not ideal,” said Akron Police Chief Kenneth Ball, when asked about the missing body camera video. “But we’re more worried about the safety of the community and our officers than we are about having a body-worn camera turned on every single time.”
Ball declined to discuss specifics because the brothers have filed a federal lawsuit against the city.
An investigation into the shooting by the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office is also ongoing.
“Having video is not the highest thing on our list,” Ball said. “It's not going to be.”
It appears many Northeast Ohio police chiefs agree with him.
We surveyed the 68 largest police departments in Northeast Ohio.
Out of the 35 with body-worn camera programs, only five departments track how often officers fail to press record.
In other words, most police departments fail to track when video they should have is missing.
“That’s unacceptable,” said David Harris, the Sally Ann Semenko Endowed Chair and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “It’s just baseline unacceptable.”
Harris has studied, written and taught about police accountability matters for decades, including body-worn cameras.
"If you're not tracking how often the cameras themselves might fail or officers fail to follow the policies about turning them on, you're missing the whole point of this,” he said. “If you don't do that, all you'll get is cameras that record things officers think they might want, and it will never serve the public's needs.”
Because we found most police departments we surveyed do not keep track of how often officers fail to activate their body cameras, it is impossible to determine just how many times these failures have occurred.
However, we obtained and compiled our own original database over a months-long period after speaking to, and requesting and reviewing disciplinary documents and audits from, all 68 police agencies related failures to activate.
We found there have been at least 183 incidents where officers failed to activate their body cameras. There could be more.
Of those, there were at least a dozen incidents where officers involved in use of force incidents failed to record them on their cameras.
‘Laughing while black’
"If you can't show it, especially when you document that you have it, you're going to have a problem, especially if you're a police department,” said Garfield Heights Police Chief Robert Byrne.
In July 2017, two of his officers arrested Robert Spencer after they said he threatened them.
In their reports, the officers noted they had body-worn camera video of their interaction.
They were wrong. A technical malfunction made it impossible to access the video, if it had been recorded at all.
Spencer was acquitted of the charges against him. The city settled a lawsuit Spencer filed for $80,000.
In his lawsuit, Spencer alleged he was arrested for “laughing while black.”
Unlike the officers, he had video of the incident.
In cell phone video recorded by his girlfriend, Spencer can be seen calling the officers “Beavis and Butthead” and referring to one as Elvis.
"I called both of them Beavis and Butthead,” Spencer said. “And then, the one guy, he kind of looked like Elvis, it wasn't even an insult! That's like a compliment, someone to call you Elvis."
In his girlfriend’s video, Spencer does not threaten the officers.
“I was just happy that she [started recording],” he said. “[Otherwise] this would be swept under the rug.”
Chief Byrne now requires supervisors to conduct random reviews of body-worn camera videos to make sure officers follow the city’s policy regarding their interactions with the public.
We also found most departments fail to conduct routine audits and spot checks, even when their policies require them to conduct random reviews.
Out of the 35 departments with body-cameras, close to half do not require supervisors to conduct random reviews or audits.
“That’s a mistake,” Harris said. “It’s not just, you know, install, flip a switch, and everything is good.
“You should have audit and reviews of pretty much all police procedures to make sure that your officers are conducting themselves according to policy and training. If you’re not doing that, you’re not going to find when you have festering problems in your department.”
However, even when a department has a policy requiring officers to review videos, that doesn’t mean audits are being performed.
Only 44 percent of the police departments we surveyed who require officers to review body camera videos were able to provide us records of audits.
The ability to audit
"We're more worried about the safety of the community and our officers than we are about having a body-worn camera turned on every single time,” Ball said.
Per its policy, Akron provided record of body-camera audits. The department also tracks when officers self-report recording failures.
However, unlike many cities we surveyed, Akron has no disciplinary records related to when officers have failed to record body camera video.
When 5 On Your Side Investigator Sarah Buduson asked if Officer Turnure would be the first, Public Information Officer and Lt. Rick Edwards interrupted our interview. Edwards said, “I think, at this point, we’re done, Sarah.”
Chief Ball continued answering questions and said it would be unfair for the public to expect to see body camera video for every incident, especially when there is an immediate safety concern.
“There are going to be unique circumstances where we may not have video available and that does not mean an officer did something improperly or wrong,” Ball said.