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Little Oversight Of Louisville Police Body Camera Use

LMPD Chief Steve Conrad demonstrates a glasses mounted position.

More than a year after introducing a multimillion-dollar body camera system, the Louisville Metro Police Department isn’t keeping track of how the cameras are being used.

Police department policy requires “regular, random audits” of body camera footage to ensure officers are acting in compliance with proper procedure and to assess overall officer performance.

But in response to an open records request from WFPL News, a police spokesman said no records exist of such audits, making it unclear if the reviews are happening at all and leaving little evidence to show whether officers are, by and large, turning their cameras on and off in accordance with police policy.

Police department policy states body cameras should be used to record all calls for service and law enforcement activities, including arrests, citations, interviews and use-of-force incidents. If an officer fails to record such an event, he or she is required to explain why in a memo to supervisors, according to the policy.

A spokesman for LMPD said the random body camera checks are "done visually," and policy violations or any training needs observed during the checks may be reflected in annual performance evaluations, personnel files or department memos. Such occurrences may also be submitted to the department's Professional Standards Unit for possible further review, according to the spokesman.

The call for body cameras across the country is mounting as relationships between people and police suffer in the wake of multiple fatal police shootings and use-of-force incidents against people of color. Body cameras are viewed as a critical tool for documenting incidents and providing visual and audio evidence in certain events.

A fatal police shooting in Louisville last week was captured by the body cameras worn by officers at the scene. One of those officers did not appear to activate his camera at the time of the shooting.

The footage has played a major role in public perception of the shooting. It will be an integral part of the police department's internal investigation, according to Police Chief Steve Conrad.

In Louisville, the body camera use reviews are conducted by sergeants in each patrol division, Conrad said. He called those positions "first-line supervisors."

Conrad said local police officials depend on the reviews to ensure officers are following proper procedure and adhering to the department's conduct policy.

"I don't think it ever occurred to us that that was something we would need to be documenting," he said. "That's something I will definitely take a look at and may be something we need to change."

'What Needs To Happen'

LMPD's rollout of the new body camera system began in earnest last year. By June, each of the department's nine patrol divisions were outfitted with the technology. The cameras came with fanfare and praise for their promise to decrease citizen complaints and increase transparency.

Now, the lax oversight of the $2.8 million program is leading to questions about the police department's transparency.

Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said body camera usage reviews should be documented for a few reasons, Perez said. Documentation is good "for the sake of transparency," she said.

Additionally, as the body camera program continues, police leaders will likely want to see if officers are following the rules, Perez said.

Metro Councilman David James, a District 6 Democrat, said without a record of the inspection, it's impossible to prove the checks are being conducted as required.

"Any other audit we do about any other thing in Metro government there is some documentation to the fact that that audit took place and what the scope of the audit was, at the bare minimum," he said.

James, a former Louisville police officer and chair of the council's public safety committee, said the absence of a documented record undermines public trust in the police department.

"If we were going to try to push forth on our transparency and our accountability, that would be something that we want to do," James said.

Sam Walker, an author and expert on police accountability, praised the department for conducting the examinations of body camera use but said "they should, you know, keep a record."

"If they want the benefits of openness and transparency, they have to be open and transparent," he said. "They need to keep records on what they're doing and what they found."

Walker said the police department should make public a summary of the review findings to show the rate at which officers use cameras in compliance with department policy.

"That's what needs to happen," he said.

Justin Nix, an assistant professor in the University of Louisville’s criminal justice department, said the department risks losing public trust by failing to provide a record of the random body camera reviews. But, he said, if police officials decide to release data associated with the reviews, it's imperative they do so in a responsible, contextual manner to avoid misrepresentation in the public eye.

For instance, he said if reviews show a drop in compliance from one quarter to the next, residents need to know if that's because officers are actually failing to comply or, rather, there's been a drop in situations that require body camera activation.

Audits Find Misuse

Audits earlier this year of body camera use by police officers in Arizona, Washingtonand Coloradofound evidence of policy violations and misuse of the cameras.

A number of police departments across the country require random review of body camera footage. And some cities require a record be made of those reviews, including Charlotte, Minneapolis and San Diego, according to the New York School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

The Police Executive Research Forum, an independent nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, recommends random reviews to "identify problems, determine noncompliance and demonstrate accountability" regarding body camera use.

The research forum also suggests the reviews should not be conducted by someone in the officers' direct chain of command, as that could "undermine the trust between an officer and his or her supervisor."

Instead, the Forum recommends any body camera use review should be conducted by an internal audit unit within the police department and follow a "clearly defined policy."

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.