Patrol car cameras have bumpy reception from St. Louis police
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Patrol car cameras have bumpy reception from St. Louis police

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St. Louis police at a standoff on June 2, 2011. Robert Cohen rcohen@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS • City police officers believe in-car cameras are being used against them, and they are trying to find ways to avoid driving cars equipped with them, according to union grievances.

Emails dated April 13 from Capt. Mary Edwards-Fears to superiors and underlings reveal officers' concerns that cameras — installed in about half of the city's 300 patrol division cars — make police vulnerable to second-guessing.

"We are missing critical evidence for our cases when we allow them to avoid using vehicles with cameras in them, for fear of being caught in a compromising position," Edwards-Fears wrote. "Your job as managers in the business is to assist your officers in following the rules and regulations, not assisting them in circumventing them."

At issue are two probationary officers investigated after a woman said they planted guns and drugs on her 16-year-old son. Video exonerated them of that claim but revealed that one struck the handcuffed teen, which led to the firing of both.

The grievance asks that they be rehired and given a disciplinary hearing. It says the department should have considered that the teen had pointed a gun at one of the officers, that probationary cops should not be partners and that other officers should have handled the suspect afterward.

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Police-car cameras, typically faced out the windshield, have been around for more than 15 years but were slowly embraced by large departments because of the cost. They have a proven record of supporting good police work, exposing bad, and providing rock-solid evidence against DUI suspects and others.

Technology is moving toward tiny cameras attached to officers' uniforms, although the Las Vegas Police Protective Association has threatened to sue that department for not negotiating terms first, according to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper.

About a year ago, police here began using car cameras donated by the St. Louis Police Foundation, a private support group. Now, 140 district vehicles have them.

Jeff Roorda, business manager of the Police Officers Association, complained about inconsistent use of the recordings. "Officers should know what the cameras are going to be used for, when the cameras are activated and how they will be reviewed and what the discipline will be if you have a violation that results from the cameras," he said. "Right now, all that is in constant flux."

Police Chief Dan Isom dismisses the concerns as "growing pains." He said, "New technology and change is always difficult for an organization. If you talk to other departments, our growing process with this is consistent."

He said videos were valuable for training, evidence, protecting officers against false complaints and "to make sure people are following the protocol of the police department."

Isom said the number of officers disciplined over what supervisors have seen on videos is "very little."

In-car cameras caught Officer Jason Stockley brandishing a personally owned rifle at a drug suspect, who was later shot and killed by police Dec. 20. The department does not allow officers to carry personally owned rifles and still is investigating the matter internally.

Officer David Wilson was seen striking a handcuffed teenage suspect in January. He was criminally charged with assault in April, and an internal investigation is under way.

The union wants the department to draft a policy on how to use cameras for discipline.

Isom doesn't see a need: "I'm not going to draft a policy for those who violate our policy."

He said each of the nine districts may have a different approach.

Referring to sergeants in her command, Edwards-Fears' email says, "Each of you is responsible for viewing the in-car camera footage of all arrests, all pursuits and all shots fired incidents and anything of interest that could catch our superiors' attention."

The Police Officers Association president, David Bonenberger, is a Sixth District sergeant. He said he reviewed tapes to critique his officers, not discipline them.

He sees the point of having cameras, but not if they're going to be used for head-hunting.

Police unions elsewhere have pushed departments to draft policies that range from limiting cameras to monitor only what happens outside of a police car to outlining reasons why supervisors should review tapes.

In Renton, Wash., a city of about 90,000, police outlined a list of reasons supervisors need to document for reviewing tapes, including any use of force.

In Eugene, Ore., a city with about 156,000 people, the Police Employee's Association helped draft a policy that requires the city to notify and negotiate with the union about any changes.

Last month, Dallas police suspended a special unit's routine review of patrol car videos after officers complained of being targeted for infractions, such as speeding on calls to help fellow officers.

In the Illinois State Police, supervisors are required to randomly audit tapes to make sure policies are followed, said Trooper Mike Link.

St. Louis County police had about 100 camera-equipped cars from about 2005-10 but couldn't afford to keep them up after a federal grant ran out, Chief Tim Fitch.

He said supervisors there needed a reason for a review. "We don't want to play 'gotcha'," Fitch said. "That's how some departments play games. They have a video and say, 'Your report doesn't match what's in the video.'

"But in the heat of battle, in what we do every day, your memory isn't always that great, so it's important for the officer to view the video and make the video part of their report."

THE ROOKIES

Officers Jacob Fowler and Rory Bruce were not allowed to review the video during an internal affairs investigation in which the department alleges Bruce can be seen striking a handcuffed 16-year-old on Feb. 20.

Moments before, the teen pointed a gun at Bruce's partner, Fowler, who then fired a shot and missed him, according to police reports.

Isom said the officers and sergeant could have viewed the video right after the incident, but didn't.

Union leaders contend that Bruce didn't remember striking the teen or expect a disciplinary issue, so he had no reason to review the tape.

Bruce, 35, was charged in April with misdemeanor assault; both were dismissed from the force.

Addressing the incident, Edwards-Fears wrote that probationary officers should not be partners, "because the experience isn't there." She also said sergeants should keep any officer subjected to an assault away from the suspect.

"We failed in this case, and I am not proud of this loss."

She supports the firing, but wrote, "Unfortunately, the case was dismissed and the offender was released because of the officers' actions."

Bruce's attorney, Joseph Hogan, said Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce's office initially promised a copy of the video if he agreed to limit its release, but he was later told he could only see it in the prosecutor's office.

"That's not the way the world works," he said, likening it to refusing to turn over police reports or other key evidence.

Joyce said in a prepared statement that it is her office's policy to make surveillance tapes available for defense attorneys and defendants for viewing at her office only. Hogan has declined to view it that way.

Hogan filed a motion last week to try to force prosecutors to release the video, saying he should be allowed to view it at will, watch it with his client and enhance it.

In the prepared statement, Joyce's office responded: "It is Mr. Hogan's prerogative to file a motion. We will address this matter at a hearing where it is appropriate, rather than grandstand in the media."

Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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