Demian Bulwa, 10/3/11
In a Bay Area first, a fatal shooting by police in East Oakland was captured on video – not by a bystander with a camcorder or a smart phone but by the officer himself, who wore a city-issued camera on his chest.
Oakland police officials will not say what the footage from Sept. 25 depicts, citing an ongoing investigation. But the fact that the shooting was captured at all illustrates a profound change in law enforcement, with officers increasingly strapping on cameras along with their guns, radios and handcuffs.
The incident is already raising thorny questions, principally this: When an officer films his own killing of a suspect, should that officer be allowed to review the footage before making a statement to investigators?
Then there’s this: In the weeks and months ahead, will the video be made available to the public or the media?
The shooting happened shortly before 5 p.m. on the 9900 block of Cherry Street. Police officials said the trouble began when two officers, who have not been identified, pulled over a car for an unspecified violation, only to watch the passenger flee on foot.
One officer caught the suspect, who had a gun and drugs, and shot him during a struggle, police said. The department has refused to identify the man, and the Alameda County coroner will not give his name without police permission.
At some point, the officer had turned on the camera, which is about the size of a pager and was clipped to his chest, by sliding down a lens cover.
“The officer was threatened with a loaded gun. He feared for his life,” said the officer’s attorney, Terry Leoni, who has not seen the footage. She said the officer’s partner did not witness the shooting.
As in all officer-involved shootings in Oakland, this one is being investigated by city homicide detectives, internal affairs investigators and the district attorney’s office. But the case quickly proved to be unusual.
Barred from viewing
After the shooting, neither the officer nor his partner was allowed to view the footage from the camera before speaking to investigators, said sources familiar with the matter.
That led to a dispute, the sources said, over whether the department followed policies adopted after the city bought 350 wearable cameras late last year from Vievu of Seattle for $540,000.
Oakland patrol officers who were given cameras are expected to record all of their stops and arrests. In typical situations, they are allowed to watch their footage, but only after filing an initial report, said Officer Johnna Watson, a department spokeswoman.
The policy does not specifically say what should happen after an officer-involved shooting, Watson said. However, she said, officials ultimately decided the officers in the Sept. 25 shooting should have been able to view the video first.
“This is the most serious situation you can face in law enforcement,” Watson said. “Why would we want to give cameras to our officers and then tell them we’re not going to let you see what you’ve just done?
“This is not a tool to work against us,” she said, “but a tool to help us, to bring clarity to what happened in a situation.” She added, “You can’t change the facts of a video.”
Police watchdogs were surprised to hear of Oakland’s position – that the officers should have been allowed to view the video first – saying it seemed to violate basic investigatory principals.
John Burris, an Oakland attorney who specializes in police misconduct cases and supports use of the body cameras, said officers who shoot suspects should not have access to such a video.
“Absolutely not,” Burris said. “I think it’s contrary to the importance of the video. If you view the video beforehand, you have an opportunity to change your story to match the video.”
Michael Risher, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in San Francisco, said, “In any investigation, it is not a good practice to show a tape to a witness before an interview. … I think any police officer will tell you that.”