02:16 - Source: CNN
What you should know about police body-worn cameras

Story highlights

Officers who responded to 911 call did not turn on their body cameras

The incident underscores flaws in the use by police of the technology

CNN  — 

There is no video of the fatal police shooting of bride-to-be Justine Ruszczyk in Minneapolis on Saturday – in part because body cameras worn by the two officers involved were not turned on.

Ruszczyk had called 911 to report a possible assault near her home. Minneapolis police officers Mohamed Noor and Matthew Harrity were on the scene by 11:30 p.m. Just 21 minutes later, 40-year-old Ruszczyk was dead of a gunshot to the abdomen. Her death is being investigated as a police shooting.

Ruszczyk’s grieving father told reporters that her family and friends ask only that “the light of justice shine down on the circumstances of her death.”

Police body cameras are intended to be an aid to that kind of transparency, but their presence does not always bring clarity. They’re not always turned on – and even when they are, the video is not necessarily made public.

Ruszczyk’s killing raises many questions, not least about the way police use body cameras. Here are some of those questions:

Do all officers have to wear them?

Dozens of police departments across the US have developed policies surrounding body cameras. As of last August, 43 of the 68 “major city” departments had body camera programs in place, according to a police scorecard on body cameras from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn.

Minneapolis is one of those cities. All patrol and SWAT officers are equipped with body cameras, totaling about 600 sworn officers in all, Minneapolis Police said. In addition, the department employs two full-time staff members to aid in records management for the captured video.

As per department policy, Noor and Harrity were wearing cameras on Saturday night during the fatal shooting.

The city began the body camera pilot program in November 2014 for testing and evaluation. The program has been rolled out over the past few years, and the city was awarded $600,000 from a Department of Justice grant toward the body camera program in September 2015.

In March 2015, former President Barack Obama and the 21st Century Policing Task Force released a report recommending greater use of body cameras. Still, Obama cautioned against putting too much stock in their use.

“There’s been a lot of talk about body cameras as a silver bullet or a solution,” he said. “I think the task force concluded that there is a role for technology to play in building additional trust and accountability, but it’s not a panacea.”

The city’s body camera policy went fully into effect around six months ago, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said.

When do officers have to turn them on?

Although officers Noor and Harrity did have body cameras, but they were not turned on at the time of the incident, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the shooting. It’s not clear why.

Minneapolis Police policy lays out the type of incidents in which a body camera should be activated, which include everything from a traffic stop to a situation where force is used. “When safe to do so, officers shall manually active the (body camera) … prior to any use of force,” the manual reads.

“If a (body camera) is not activated prior to a use of force, it shall be activated as soon as it is safe to do so.”

For many the absence of video illustrates a glaring problem with the body camera system. “Many of you have asked why the officers’ body cameras weren’t activated, and I’m asking the same question,” Mayor Hodges said in a statement. “Right now, we don’t know.”

“It’s particularly disturbing that video evidence is not available because the officers switched off their body cameras,” Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison said on Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union similarly released a statement criticizing the officers’ failure to turn on the cameras, and suggested punishments for failing to do so. “These two officers should face penalties for breaking policy … and making the truth so much harder to find. Consequences should be added to the policy to ensure better compliance and accountability,” the ACLU said in a statement.

Officers who fail to adhere to the body camera policy can be subject to discipline, up to and including termination, according to city guidelines. Both officers have been placed on administrative leave amid the investigation.

Who can access the footage?

The existence of body camera footage doesn’t mean that the public will necessarily be allowed to view it. In Minnesota, under city department guidelines, all body camera recordings are the property of Minneapolis Police unless provided to another law enforcement agency for investigative purposes.

Minnesota is one of dozens of states that has passed laws on public access to body camera footage, limiting who can see what videos and when. City guidelines explain that the recordings may not be shown for the purpose of ridiculing, embarrassing or intimidating any person.

Other states have more restrictive guidelines on what can be released. In North Carolina, for example, a law that went into effect last October blocks the public from obtaining body camera or dashboard camera recordings. Only those filmed in the video, or in some cases their family members, are allowed to see it.

The idea behind the law was about “respecting the public, respecting the family, and also respecting the constitutional rights of the officer,” former Gov. Pat McCrory said at the time. But critics like Karen Anderson, the ACLU’s North Carolina executive director, said that the law would undermine transparency and blocks the public from being properly informed.

How conclusive is video anyway?

Footage from body cameras can be a key piece of evidence in a case, but it is still just one piece of evidence. Given that they are attached to an officer’s moving body, the footage can be blurry, unstable, or show incomplete angles or perspectives – just like real life.

Even when video does show a shooting or incident, the footage can be interpreted differently by different sides.

During the reckless homicide trial of Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown, who fatally shot Sylville Smith in August 2016, body camera footage showed that the officer shot Smith moments after Smith threw his weapon over a fence.

Prosecutors said the video proved that Heaggan-Brown acted recklessly. But the defense said the same video proved he followed his training and was justified in shooting. The jury ultimately found Heaggan-Brown not guilty last month.

Similarly, University of Cincinnati Police officer Ray Tensing’s fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose was interpreted differently by each side of his murder case.

But in that case, a shaky camera during the fatal shot made the footage difficult to interpret, and juries twice failed to come to a conclusive verdict in separate trials. On Tuesday, prosecutors announced that they will not pursue a third trial for Tensing.

CNN’s Dave Alsup contributed to this report.