Phillips: Make sure police body cameras don’t fail in critical events

The video of an Austin police officer punching a man in the face as he lay restrained on the ground is disturbing. One officer grabs the man’s arms, while another officer sits on his legs, delivering a series of hard blows to a seemingly defenseless suspect. A third person who is not an officer helps restrain the shirtless man.

No wonder the 50-second video by a bystander went viral.

Both officers involved in last week’s incident near a downtown nightclub wore body cameras, which are supposed to provide an independent account of critical incidents. For Austin police, body cameras have been key in sorting out whether officers acted professionally in critical encounters with people or used excessive force.

We should have footage from body-worn cameras to make such an assessment in this case, given that police accounts conflict with statements by the suspect, Justin Grant, 23. We don’t.

Related: Video of Austin officer punching restrained man under police review.

Instead, we are learning about the limitations and deficiencies of body-worn cameras and the confusion that ensues when they fail.

With a price tag of about $1.6 million — for 1,526 body-worn cameras — they are supposed to be sturdy enough to endure contact between police and suspects in arrests that get physical.

In Wednesday’s incident, one body-worn camera fell off – or was knocked off – as an officer tried to arrest Grant. A camera worn by another officer involved in the incident stopped working. It’s not clear why, though Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said there is no evidence the officer turned off his camera.

The body cameras Austin police use are attached to their shirts, using powerful magnets. But as police demonstrated this week, they aren’t difficult to knock loose or pry apart. Officers told me they come loose frequently during incidents downtown. That is apparently what happened Wednesday with the first officer’s body camera.

The chief said he is working with the manufacturer to look at better ways of harnessing cameras to officers’ uniforms. On Monday — three days after I reported issues regarding the cameras — Manley said the manufacturer, Axon, is providing about 40 prototypes of a new mounting system to test if it works better than the one currently in use.

Anaylsis: Why police bodycam footage doesn’t always clear things up.

Manley said he would examine whether the camera that stopped working is a lemon that should be replaced or whether the malfunction signals a bigger issue with body-worn cameras. Do they, for instance, have a technical default that causes them to stop under certain conditions?

Without footage from body-worn cameras, the public is stuck with conflicting versions of the incident: one provided by police and a few witnesses that justifies the punches by police to Grant’s head; another by Grant that asserts police used excessive and unnecessary force. The viral video that caught a portion of the incident favors Grant’s version.

“There was a lot that happened prior to the part that has been displayed in public right now,” Manley said. “I understand the community’s concern with the video as it was posted. I don’t think it was readily known that the suspect at that time was in possession of a deadly weapon.”

Manley was referring to a 6-inch knife, which, according to police and witnesses, was tucked in Grant’s waistband. A witness said Grant could be seen reaching for the weapon as two officers approached him on Fourth Street. Police also say Grant tried to reach for his knife during the altercation.

Viewpoints: Access questions remain for police body cameras.

Officers were called because Grant reportedly was threatening staff at the Rain nightclub last week. He was arrested and charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat, according to court documents.

Grant offered very different details to the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski. He said police attacked him from behind and did not give him an opportunity to talk before they turned aggressive. He said he never reached for the knife.

“Completely barbaric,” said Grant, who had a black eye and stun gun marks from the confrontation. “How do you hit someone who is not doing anything, who is not resisting?”

Manley has called on his Internal Affairs division to get answers. The inquiry, he said, will turn on information gathered from police, witnesses, the nightclub and viral video, among other things. The chief has asked for others who witnessed the incident to come forward with their accounts or cell phone videos.

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Along with that, problems with body-worn cameras need to be addressed. The department has not shaken the stigma of the violent arrest in 2015 of African-American schoolteacher, Breaion King, after she was stopped by an Austin officer for a traffic violation. That was caught on video, which also went viral.

We know the value of body-worn cameras in protecting police, the public and in helping to hold police accountable. But body-worn cameras aren’t useful if they don’t function in the moments we need them most.

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