Any time a police shooting is captured on video it's bound to cause a stir.
In most cases, the video is recorded by a quick-thinking member of the public fast on the draw with a cell phone camera. But in a recent incident involving a member of the Oakland Police Department, the video was taken by the officer himself.
On September 25, the officer made a routine traffic stop near the intersection of Cherry Street and 99th Avenue in Oakland's Iveywood neighborhood. After being pulled over, the vehicle's passenger fled on foot and the officer followed. The suspect, in possession of a gun and illegal narcotics, was fatally shot during the ensuing struggle.
The entire incident was captured by a small video camera attached to the officer's chest. The Oakland Police Department has yet to publicly release the identities of either the officer or the suspect.
Last year, the department purchased 350 of the cameras from Vievu, a Seattle-based firm whose pager-sized devices are the industry standard for body-worn law enforcement video recorders.
As per standard procedure, the officer involved in the shooting wasn't allowed to watch the video before filing his initial report. This policy usually isn't cause for concern, but in a highly-charged case where critics might be quick to pounce on any errors in the report, the decision not to let the officer review the recording beforehand raised eyebrows.
The decision is especially contentious because there is some disagreement as to exactly what happened. ABC 7 reports that the officer claims the suspect threatened him with a gun; however, witnesses on the scene said the suspect had his hands in the air when he was shot.
"This is the most serious situation you can face in law enforcement," [Oakland Police Department Spokesperson Officer Joanna] 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."
Department officials recanted their decision after the fact, publicly stating they should have let the officer watch the footage before writing his report.
The cameras are largely viewed as a way to quell public mistrust of police departments by adding an extra layer of accountability to all police actions.
The Seattle police department began exploring a pilot program for officers to wear the body-mounted cameras after an area woodcarver was killed by a cop; however, possible conflicts with Washington State's privacy laws and the local police union may derail the project before it gets off the ground.
The San Jose Police Department recently ran a six-month trial of similar cameras that attached to officers' heads via an ear clip. The trail found significant drawbacks including physical discomfort associated with wearing the cameras as well the entire system's prohibitive cost.
"We have 1,100 officers in San Jose," Sgt. Jason Dwyer told Seattle Weekly. "If 500 officers had these, we would have a huge cost in storing all that data."
In the wake of the shooting death of Charles Hill at the Civic Center BART station earlier this year, the BART police department has begun to give video cameras to a small fraction of its officers on a trial basis.
Even before individual officers started wearing devices on their bodies, many police departments around the country had long embraced cameras mounted on the dashboards of their squad cars. As of 2003, 54 percent of police departments in major American cities employ dashboard cameras.
While police departments consider programs in which their officers record themselves, some First Amendment advocates have spoken out about the public's inability to videotape police officers. Twelve states have laws requiring anyone being recorded sign a release and three states prohibit members of the public from videotaping on-duty police officers at all.
Reports of individuals in trouble for taping police officers have circulated widely in recent years. A New York woman was arrested on an obstruction charge for videotaping police officers searching a stopped car, and a National Guard Sargent currently faces 16 years in prison for posting a video he recorded of a police officer pulling a gun during a traffic stop on YouTube.
In 2007, a California Highway Patrol officer handcuffed and banned an Oakland Tribune photographer from taking pictures of a freeway accident. The photographer eventually sued the department; however, both a federal judge and an appeals court panel ruled against him.
Video from the recent Oakland shooting is unlikely to be made public.
CORRECTION: The article originally stated that it was the vehicle's driver who fled on foot, not its passenger.