Austin police body cameras prove valuable in officer shootings

The Austin Police Department’s new body-worn cameras faced the first real test of their value this month when two officers opened fire on stabbing suspects in unrelated incidents just days apart.

A body camera caught officer Alfredo Delvalle, a 23-year veteran of the department, wounding 50-year-old Aubrey Garrett in Central Austin on Dec. 15 as Garrett attacked 43-year-old Andrea Faye Lindsey with a knife in the 5000 block of Lynnwood Drive, police said.

Two days later, a camera worn by officer Jason Canales, who has been on the force for eight years, recorded him when he shot 59-year-old Quinton Wiles in Northwest Austin after Wiles walked toward officers with a knife and repeatedly refused to drop it, police said.

Police said he had stabbed his boyfriend about 10 times hours earlier and left him bleeding inside their home, according to court records.

Within hours of each shooting, authorities were using the footage captured by the cameras, which have been given to patrol officers over the past few months.

“We were provided with a really good view of the incidents, even though officers had their weapons out,” interim Police Chief Brian Manley said. “It was fortunate that our officers that were involved had the body-worn camera because they really did provide a view that we would not have had otherwise.”

READ MORE: Police body cameras will hit East Austin streets next week

Before the cameras’ deployment, the chief would arrive at the scene of a police shooting and get a briefing from the most informed officer there, usually a sergeant or lieutenant. That officer would explain everything he or she understood, including the nature of the call and how officers got there, and take a brief statement from the officer involved.

“Then I would look at the scene,” Manley said. “I would look at the evidence that was there and just try to put together the best assessment of what had happened so that we could at least make that preliminary statement to the media outlining what we understood from the early investigation.”

All of that still occurs, but with the body camera footage of the two recent shootings available to Manley, he was staring at a computer screen within an hour of arriving, getting a first-person view of what happened.

“In our attempts to be as timely and transparent (as possible) with the media, we’re relying on that (officer’s) initial account at least to put out our initial report to the community,” Manley said. “Being able to view the body-worn camera footage allows you to see a lot more of the incident and understand it in more detail than you would otherwise if you were relying only on the officer’s statement.”

Manley said he hopes the “true, independent” accounts of events recorded by the cameras will increase community trust and confidence in the department, and he said he thinks officers appreciate the extra eyes, too.

Because many police encounters, arrests or other incidents that go awry often do so out of the view of cars’ dashboard cameras, Manley said the body cameras give the officers confidence that they will have a reliable witness when their actions come under scrutiny.

“I think the officers, knowing that they’ve got a camera with them now, will (have) a certain level of comfort … that we will likely be provided with a firsthand account from that body-worn camera that we have not had in the past.”

FROM THE SOURCE: Read Austin police body-worn camera policy

Delvalle’s and Canales’ cases are still in the early stages of investigation, so how the camera footage could be used in court or how it might be released or received by the public is still up in the air.

Manley said the cameras don’t change how the department investigates police shootings. Authorities still have to interview witnesses, speak to the officer, analyze evidence and write reports. So getting to the bottom of a critical incident should still take the same amount of time.

He said the department will continue its policy of holding on to the records, much as it does with dashcam footage, until investigations are complete.

“The state wrote the law as far as body-worn camera (footage) getting out in the public and being released,” Manley said. “The state law is very directive and somewhat restrictive on what videos can be released, per law. That may create some public concern over videos that we’re not allowed to release because of the law, but it’s a law that we have to comply with.”

As the cameras capture more incidents, Manley said it’s important to manage the community’s expectations.

“That camera is always going to be facing the direction the officer’s torso is facing,” he said. “That officer may be looking over their left shoulder, over their right shoulder, over their back, and they might have a completely different sense of what’s going on that the camera does not capture.”

Manley said the camera “is going to afford us, in most cases, a lot of additional information on which we can rely. But that won’t be the case in every instance.”

In the age of social media and smartphones, video of police shootings is already finding its way to the public, Manley said. But as more body camera footage becomes available, it’s becoming even more important for agencies to interact with their communities to help them understand the tactics and policies behind actions they see on camera.

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Austin police have opened several training sessions to members of the community, media and activist groups to teach them what the department’s body camera policy is, how officers are trained and what police leadership expects from them.

Not every Austin police officer has a body camera. So far this year, the department has issued them to officers working out of the eastern, southern and central substations. The department will request more than 700 more cameras from the Austin City Council in 2018 to outfit patrol officers in the city’s northern sector, police said.

Manley said the expiration of the Austin Police Association’s contract with the city will have no effect on any policies related to the cameras.

As far as changes in culture or complaints within the Police Department, Manley said it’s still too early to tell.

“There are different studies out there. Some will say that body-worn cameras improve the behavior on both the citizen and the officer, and there are other studies that say they have not seen an impact. So I don’t know what the Austin experience is going to be,” he said. “I just know it’s the right thing for Austin.”