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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, June 15, 2019 1:00 am

Chiefs take officers off federal probes

Feds' body cam ban upsets local departments

Tom Jackman | Washington Post

When an Atlanta police officer working on a federal 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 feds would not bend on their “no cameras” practice, Shields and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms then decided late last month to pull all of Atlanta's officers out of their joint task forces with the DEA, 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 begun 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-worn camera use while ignoring them for 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' 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, Minnesota, officers have been kicked off a 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 feds.

“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 ATF to the DEA to the Marshals, no Justice Department agents or officers wear body cameras, a Justice Department official confirmed. In the Interior Department, the U.S. Park Police also have no cameras and so did not record the November 2017 incident in which two officers fatally shot unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar in Fairfax County, Virginia. Two Fairfax 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 last 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 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 that “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 understood concerns about the safety of undercover officers or witnesses but that “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 will meet 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.”