When an Atlanta police officer working on an FBI fugitive task force shot and killed a wanted but unarmed man in January, he hadn’t yet been assigned a body camera. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields moved quickly to assign cameras to all of her officers on task forces and was told no. Federal agents never wear body cameras, and they prohibit local officers from wearing them on their joint operations.
Shields said she wasn’t aware of the camera ban until after investigator Sung Kim fatally shot Jimmy Atchison. When she realized the federal agencies would not bend on their “no camera” policies, Shields and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decided late last month to pull Atlanta’s officers out of joint task forces with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, about 25 officers total.
“If you’re policing and you’re policing properly,” Shields said, “you have nothing to fear” from wearing a body camera. Bottoms said she didn’t want to be in the position of not having video footage to answer the questions of a grieving family.
As more local police departments require their officers to record their actions, chiefs have been joining Atlanta in pushing back against the federal prohibition on body cameras. They note that the Justice Department has helped fund and train local police departments in body-camera use while ignoring federal use.
No video footage is likely to emerge from a federal shooting in Memphis that sparked a night of rioting Wednesday. An armed fugitive from Mississippi was cornered by a U.S. Marshals Service regional task force, police said, and the marshals fatally shot 20-year-old Brandon Webber. Memphis police were not a part of the task force or the shooting, a Memphis police spokesman said, but became caught up in the controversy when they were called to help maintain the scene and were attacked by angry residents. At least 35 officers were injured.
In St. Paul, Minn., officers have been kicked off federal marshals’ task force for insisting on wearing their cameras, on orders from their chief, Todd Axtell. Police chiefs in Houston and Austin are considering pulling their officers from task forces if they can’t reach a compromise with the federal agencies.
“I believe they have an obligation to join us in 21st-century policing,” Axtell said of the federal agencies. “This is what they’ve been preaching. It’s ironic they aren’t complying with what they preach to be so important in policing.”
Axtell said the idea of transparency has been embraced by his officers to the extent that “they refuse to go out on patrol without their cameras,” largely because it supports officers when they are accused of wrongdoing.
From the FBI to the DEA to the Marshals Service to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, no Justice Department agents or officers wear body cameras, a department official confirmed.
In the Interior Department, the U.S. Park Police also have no cameras and did not record the November 2017 incident in which two officers fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in Fairfax County, Va. Two Fairfax County officers used their in-car cameras to capture the shooting. No charges have been filed, and it remains under investigation.
A bill to require federal uniformed officers to wear body cameras, introduced in the House in the fall by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and spurred by the Ghaisar killing, did not get a hearing before the 2018 session of Congress ended and will soon be reintroduced, Norton’s and Beyer’s staffs said.
A Justice Department official said the objection to cameras relates to “safety and security concerns, such as protecting sensitive or tactical methods used in arresting violent fugitives or conducting covert investigations.” The official said, “Justice Department law enforcement agencies are also concerned about privacy interests of third parties that may be present at the time a warrant is executed.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said he understands concerns about the safety of undercover officers or witnesses but, “if there’s a legitimate need to redact any piece of that, there’s a process available for that through the courts.”
Acevedo, head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which includes the 69 largest U.S. police and sheriff’s departments, said he was meeting with the FBI later this month to discuss the issue.
“Transparency breeds trust in the community,” Acevedo said. “I think it’ll be difficult for our federal partners not to be in line with expectations on transparency.”
A Justice Department survey released in November showed that 47 percent of police and sheriff’s agencies in the United States had acquired body cameras as of 2016 and 69 percent had in-car cameras. Of the agencies with more than 500 officers or deputies, 80 percent had body cameras, the survey showed.
The number of agencies with body cameras has roughly doubled in the past five years, a study from George Mason University estimated recently.
Federal agencies form task forces with local police departments to target specific issues, such as gun crime or high-intensity drug dealing, or to catch wanted criminals. The Marshals Service, in a statement, said its joint operations “result in the arrest of nearly 100,000 violent fugitives each year, bringing immediate relief to communities and protecting the most vulnerable populations.”
The Marshals Service noted is was “aware that some state and local task force partners have initiated body-worn camera programs” and it was “committed to continuing to assist our task force partners however possible in performance of the critical mission to ensure the safety of our communities.” Officials with the Marshals Service, the FBI, ATF and the Department of Homeland Security all declined to answer specific questions about body cameras on the record.
“These task forces are godsends to the cities,” said Patrick O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, citing federal assistance to cities such as Baltimore and Chicago. “But oftentimes, the agents are in an undercover capacity, where it becomes problematic having their operations recorded.”
One federal official noted that, even on tactical operations such as search or arrest warrants, agents may encounter helpful witnesses or evidence they do not want recorded. That becomes a problem because local police policies often prohibit officers from turning off their cameras.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Marshals Service assistant director had announced “the agency wouldn’t allow any local law enforcement officers wearing body cameras to serve on Marshals task forces,” even as the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance was pushing funding and training on the cameras to local police. The bureau calls the cameras “a promising tool to improve evidentiary outcomes, and enhance the safety of, and improve interactions between, officers and the public.”
But four years ago, many police departments had not yet equipped much of their forces with the cameras. But most big departments have caught up, prompting some conflicts.
O’Carroll noted that, when local police officers join a task force, they are deputized as federal agents. They then follow the practices of the federal agency, which in the case of cameras means no cameras.
Not every department sees the “no cameras” rule as a problem. In Tucson, Police Chief Chris Magnus said his department can’t afford body cameras for its entire department, so task force officers don’t have them.
“Pulling out of federal task forces would have a negative impact on our ability to work narcotics, stolen vehicles, gun cases,” Magnus said. “We are not a wealthy city and federal help has been more advantageous than not. No one is asking us to violate our own policies — yet — so we have no reason to leave.”
In Washington, officers with the D.C. police remove their cameras when they join the federal task forces, Deputy Communications Director Kristen Metzger said.
“The feds don’t allow us to use them and we comply. We’re going along with what our federal partners want,” she said.
Police officials understand the need to keep witnesses, secret discussions and undercover agents out of video recordings.
“What I want is,” said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, “when officers are doing a preplanned operation, a search warrant or a takedown, they should have the body-worn cameras on. That’s a very controlled use of the camera. I think that’s a starting point. . . . This is going to be an issue the federal agencies need to address. If they don’t, we’ll need to consider whether we continue to participate with them.”
Shields said her officers on federal task forces in Atlanta were given the option of wearing their cameras and not doing any enforcement activity or not wearing cameras and “just hoping they wouldn’t get involved in anything” controversial. “That’s not workable.”
Shields said the public expectation in her communities is that police will have video footage to back up their version of events. “We owe it to the family to explain the best we can why we killed someone,” the Atlanta chief said. “It’s unacceptable to them that they have to accept our word.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that Atlanta police had not assigned cameras to their task force officers before the Atchison shooting.