Police body cams have wide support. Do they live up to the hype?

Isabel Hughes Jeff Neiburg
Delaware News Journal

For the last three and a half weeks, Lymond Moses’ family has wondered how the final moments of his life unfolded.

The 30-year-old was shot by New Castle County police in Wilmington’s Riverside neighborhood in the early morning hours of Jan. 13 as officers investigated a “suspicious vehicle.”

When police approached Moses’ car, he took off toward a dead end, the department said. He then made a U-turn and drove at “a high rate of speed directly at the officers,” who shot toward the car multiple times.

Police investigate after the driver of a car was shot and killed by New Castle County Police officers in the Riverside neighborhood of Wilmington on Jan. 13, 2021. Police said the officers were investigating a suspicious vehicle at E. 24th St. and Rosemont Ave. shortly after 1 a.m. when the driver fled, then turned around at a dead-end and drove at the officers at high speed.

Moses was killed in the process, dying from a gunshot wound to the head.

The incident was captured on officers’ body cameras — footage the man’s family wants to view. They believe it will answer some of their questions, including whether Moses’ rented 2020 Nissan Altima was, in fact, bearing down on the two officers when they opened fire.

But Moses' family, along with the public, won’t see the videos anytime soon. In the five years that New Castle County police have used body cameras, the department has never released footage.

The department denied a Freedom of Information Act request from Delaware Online/The News Journal for the footage, saying it’s considered “part of the investigatory file … and falls directly within FOIA’s definition of records that are exempt from disclosure.”

STORY: Police fatally shot Lymond Moses. His family says officers' account doesn't make sense

In Delaware and across the nation, calls to equip all law enforcement with cameras intensified last summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Responding to the calls for more accountability, Gov. John Carney last month rolled out the first steps toward statewide body camera use. He proposed $1.6 million for police body cameras and an additional $2 million for storage and personnel costs in a spending plan for the next fiscal year. That's not enough to put cameras on every officer, but the phased-in approach hopes to have cameras on all police by 2025.

Former Wilmington Police Inspector Elmer Harris holds two body cameras, the VieVu (left) and TASER brands.

A poll conducted then by the Associated Press and NORC, a University of Chicago-based research institution, found that 88% of respondents said they supported body cameras. Broken down by race, 90% of Black Americans polled showed support and 91% of white Americans said they support the devices.

“Body-worn cameras are game changers," said Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings. "They are game changers for the police and they are game changers for the public.”

And yet, as evidenced by Moses’ case, the devices — and Delaware’s procedures for releasing footage — are “not a miracle pill,” said Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson.

Moses’ family will have to wait until the Delaware Department of Justice completes its investigation into the shooting and publishes the videos, a process that often takes months.

“You have to be mindful of the fact that it is a piece in a very large puzzle,” said Jaime Leonard, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police.

“If treated as such, (they) will prove to be beneficial not only to the public, but also to the police officers that are wearing them. But you can't look at just one piece."

'Who’s going to police the police?'

Only a handful of Delaware police agencies have been using body cameras for more than a few years. 

STORY:Black Delaware lawmakers, attorney general call for police accountability with proposed reforms

Currently, 21 of Delaware's 46 law enforcement agencies use cameras — a three-fold increase from just five years ago, when seven departments had the technology.

New Castle County is the largest department to use the cameras. Delaware State Police piloted cameras in early 2016, but never adopted them full-time.

Wilmington and Dover police plan to roll out cameras later this year. Once that happens, about 1,100 of the state's 2,200 sworn officers will be wearing body cameras.

WILMINGTON'S CAMERAS:After pledges to wear body cameras, Wilmington plans to use footage to reduce lawsuits, protests

In the departments that use cameras, the overwhelming majority of officers like the devices, Leonard said. While there are always "some curmudgeons right out of the gate," most complaints he's heard are "just minor growing pains."

New Castle County police spokesman Master Cpl. Michel Eckerd said for officers in his department, the cameras have "become another essential piece of equipment, no different from their ballistic vest, portable radio or gun belt."

New Castle County police officer first class Megan Weyl demonstrates the use of a body camera in Powell Ford Park.

"Over time, the officers have grown comfortable with utilizing the cameras and realized the benefits they provide," Eckerd said.

Newark Police rolled out cameras early last year, and officers quickly realized the cameras "are really to benefit the officer and protect the officer in terms of capturing exactly what happened," said Lt. Andrew Rubin.

READ:Newark police to roll out body cameras in early 2020, department says

But activists worry that because the public almost never sees what’s captured on video, the cameras benefit police more than they do the community.

Wilmington activist Mahkieb Booker said “the jury is still out” on the technology and its impact on the community.

He said the community review board legislation that passed in Wilmington in the fall is one step, but is far from perfect. He wants the chance to sit on the board himself.

The civilian police review board in Delaware's largest city will comprise five members appointed from local civil rights groups, one member from the mayor's office and three members who are City Council members, according to the bill. It will be tasked with publishing data about the complaints it receives, as well as data about uses of force in Wilmington and trends about police practices.

But its power is tamped down by Delaware's police bill of rights. Those protections prevent any non-law enforcement officers from questioning police over a civilian complaint and sharply restrict public access to police records of internal investigations and discipline. 

“The cameras are almost obsolete if the same people are going to give you the same answers and story,” Booker said. “It’s like asking a fox to guard a chicken coup. Who’s going to police the police?”

Departments do police themselves, though, Leonard said. Agencies that use body cameras randomly audit officers’ footage, which, at times, has shown “some things that may be alarming.”

“It’s nothing overly egregious, but maybe it’s enough to prompt you to have a discussion with a particular officer about their tone, or the manner in which they speak to people and things like that,” Leonard said.

New Castle County police officer Grigori Lopez-Garcia reviews body camera footage on his laptop while in Powell Ford Park in 2016.

Rubin said Newark police had an instance last fall in which a person complained about how an officer treated them following a car accident. When internal affairs personnel reviewed the officer’s body camera footage, they found the complaint was unfounded.

“Our policy talks about not releasing the video publicly, but in that case I offered for the person to come and watch the video with me,” Rubin said.

Eckerd said county police have extended similar invitations to “family members and community leaders who have a vested interest in the investigation.”

“This is done to maintain the integrity of the investigation while also providing a level of transparency to those that are directly impacted by the incident,” he said.

Still, Leonard acknowledged that there are “definitely times” when releasing body camera footage publicly “would be beneficial.”

“I don't think it's a perfect system,” he said. “We probably could make some modifications to it to continue to protect the due process of our police officers while also assuring the public that the rules are being followed and that there aren't a special set of rules for police officers.”

No quick access to body camera footage

In the days and weeks after Milford police fatally shot Brandon Roberts on Jan. 5, 2020, the story told by Roberts’ fiancée, Erica Jones, and lawyer Thomas Neuberger differed from statements released by Delaware State Police.

READ:Fiancée's story of man's death at the hands of Milford officers differs from police account

Roberts, a 27-year-old from Dover, had been having a mental breakdown and was under the influence of "multiple substances" when he called 911 from his and Jones' Silver Lake Estates apartment. Roberts told the dispatcher he and his fiancée had been fighting and that he has weapons, including an AK-47 and a machete.

Brandon Roberts (left) and Erica Jones with their son, Nasir.

Jones said she wrestled the phone from Roberts and told the dispatcher that wasn't true.

As an officer pushed open the couple's apartment door, Roberts lunged toward him "while brandishing a large knife,” police said. Two officers then shot Roberts dead.

At the time, Neuberger and Jones disputed the official story, saying Roberts did not lunge at officers. Neuberger also said officers trained in de-escalation should have stepped back.

Evidence that showed what happened, including body camera footage, sat in the hands of the Milford Police Department, Delaware State Police and the Department of Justice for months while investigators looked into the shooting.

Because of the lack of information from investigators, speculation about what happened circled on social media and at least one protest was held in response to Roberts' death.

ROBERTS PROTEST:Family and friends march in memory of Milford man killed by police earlier this year

The video of the shooting wasn't seen publicly for more than seven months, when the Delaware Department of Justice released its final use-of-force report on Aug. 19.

Video from the scene, from surveillance and police body cameras, shows two officers enter the apartment building and head to the second-floor apartment. They bang on the door and Roberts cracks it open while officers shout for him to show his hands. He then exits the apartment with a knife in his hand and is shot multiple times.

In Delaware, lethal force is justified when an officer believes it is "immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting the (officer) against the use of unlawful force by the other person on the present occasion."

The Department of Justice determined the officers were neither reckless or negligent in "forming the belief that force was immediately necessary."

Surveillance video from the night of Brandon Roberts' shooting death by Milford police.

Jennings said the department can't release footage before an investigation is complete because it might "damage a person's chance of a fair trial."

"That's on us to make sure that we're protecting that," she said. "We didn't release the video until we released the report for those very ethical reasons and until we made a firm decision about liability."

Booker, the Wilmington activist, said he believes Delaware should re-evaluate its policies, especially in light of how quickly other states release footage.

In nearby Philadelphia in October, police released a detailed video of 911 calls and footage from the body-worn cameras from officers who fatally shot 27-year-old Walter Wallace just nine days after the incident.

And when Columbus, Ohio police officer Adam Coy shot unarmed 47-year-old Andre Hill on Dec. 22, 2020, body camera footage from the incident was out and public before New Year’s Day. Last week, Coy was arrested and charged with murder.

Protesters march in West Philadelphia on Saturday, October 31, 2020 to demonstrate against the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr.

“The community should have access to the videos almost as soon as the police,” he said. “One thing about the law, justice is supposed to be blind if everything is on the up and up.”

During a Friday afternoon rally outside the New Castle County Police Department, Lakeisha Nix, the sister of Lymond Moses, was shocked to hear how long it has taken in the past for the state to release footage.

“Eight months?” she asked. “If it’s going to be eight months we’ll be out here protesting all eight months. We’re not letting this go.”

Delaware's NAACP president, Richard Smith (front) speaks to the media while Randall Nix, the father of Lymond Moses, holds a sign behind him.

Police have concerns, too

Just as activists have some concerns about body cameras, law enforcement, too, said the technology is not perfect.

One of the biggest drawbacks is the camera’s field of view.

In Delaware, most officers wear the devices on their chests, so cameras might not record what the officer is seeing when he turns his head.

"Am I to be held accountable for whatever was going on in the field of vision of that camera when my actual human vision was someplace else?" Johnson, the Dover Police Chief, said.

This issue is clear in the Roberts shooting.

In footage from one officer's body camera, the positioning of his hands and gun makes it difficult to see Roberts exit the apartment with the knife in his hand. It’s the view of the surveillance camera above that offers that perspective.

A shoulder-mounted body camera New Castle County police tested several years ago.

Rubin, the Newark lieutenant, said the public should not rely solely on body cameras to determine what occurred.

"I think one of the downfalls of the camera system is people are going to come to rely on the fact that there's cameras, and they're going to expect that the camera shows everything and it's not going to.”

In addition to these issues, transparency comes with a price — and in the case of body cameras, it's a steep one.

Not only are the devices themselves expensive. Departments also have to pay for storage of the footage, and the personnel required to process and review evidence.

In 2019 alone, New Castle County police generated 41,250 hours of body camera footage. While police did not review every single one of those, the random audits conducted periodically by supervisors take time.

And if there's a criminal case where body camera footage is available, the justice department is given all the relevant video, "whether that case is a misdemeanor disorderly conduct, or a murder and everything in between," Jennings said.

“That means somebody in our office who has that case has to review every minute of all of that footage" to search for evidence that helps the prosecution or the accused, she said.

The justice department estimates that getting cameras on every officer in the state would cost around $4 million per year.

Johnson, the Dover chief, said now, with such a demand for police reform and accountability, "there is value for the dollar."

"When we all have had a chance to consume the byproducts of the body-worn camera program and look at the costs related to that much amount of transparency, do we come to a different conclusion as a society?" he said.

But he said he'll be curious to see "where that value argument lands, five years from now, 10 years from now."

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_ Contact Jeff Neiburg at jneiburg@delawareonline.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.