Sunday, May 17, 2009

Camera Wasn't Rolling when Officers Killed One Man & Wounded Another

It is not clear why the video and audio recording equipment in Senior Austin Police Officer Leonardo Quintana's patrol car was not activated when he attempted to arrest suspects in a parked car. It's also unclear why another camera in a backup unit also was not rolling.

An investigation will determine whether the cameras weren't working or simply weren't activated. What is clear is that officers are required to have their cameras rolling for all traffic and pedestrian stops, sobriety tests and pursuits.

Quintana's camera wasn't rolling, however, when the officer encountered Nathaniel Sanders II, 18, and two other young men in a parked car in an East Austin apartment complex. The occupants of the automobile were thought to be connected to an incident involving gunshots.

The encounter ended with Sanders dead and Sir Lawrence Smith wounded. It is a case that underscores the value of video cameras and recording equipment. Cameras can be a police officer's best friend. If the officer is following procedure and policy, the camera is there to record that. Likewise, the camera captures behavior of officers who abuse their badges. Because the cameras are incapable of bias, they are invaluable in boosting public trust in the police department.

At the moment, Chief Art Acevedo says the shooting appears lawful. Police say Quintana shot and killed Sanders, one of three black men in the parked Mercedes Benz, after Sanders went for a gun. A gun was found inside the automobile. As the chief pointed out, an officer is trained to meet lethal force with lethal force. He also noted that the investigation is not complete.

In the coming weeks, Acevedo must answer why the video and audio recorders were not engaged in Quintana's patrol car and in the vehicle of a backup officer. Those devices automatically record whenever a patrol car's emergency lights or sirens are activated. And if they were broken, that is not an excuse because officers are required to test their recorders prior to going out on shifts. With few exceptions, police policy prohibits officers from taking patrol cars with faulty, broken or malfunctioning equipment.

Acevedo must get tough on officers who fail to follow camera procedures. This city has seen too many incidents in which the simple act of turning on a camera could have prevented turmoil, distrust and division.

Tensions between police and the minority community were further inflamed when it was discovered that an officer failed to capture the 2005 shooting death of Daniel Rocha on his video camera, which was not activated. But police video in the 2006 case involving Michael Clark, who died after being stunned several times with a Taser, helped dispel claims of police brutality against a black suspect.

Acevedo wants to upgrade to digital recorders that would automatically turn on and run all the time. The police union supports that initiative, but the city does not have the $8 million to buy digital cameras. As it stands, the minimum penalty for failure to activate video recorders is a written reprimand, with the maximum being a three-day suspension. Acevedo said that most officers follow the rules. But he acknowledged there are some who don't. And those few are creating problems for the many.

That is why penalties should be enhanced. It's a matter of credibility and good policing.