On the night Indianapolis police officers shot and killed two men, not a single officer in the department's 1,700-person force was wearing a body camera.
It's a stark reminder that Indianapolis lags many other cities in implementing body worn cameras, despite longstanding demands from community leaders and civil rights activists.
In fact, an IndyStar analysis has found Indianapolis is the largest city in the nation without a body camera program.
Of the top 20 most populated U.S. cities, only Indianapolis does not outfit at least some of its officers with body cameras, IndyStar found. Smaller neighboring cities have also introduced body cameras, including Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood and Lawrence.It's a fact that leaves some incredulous.
“How in 2020 don’t ya’ll have police cams?" said Terrance Hood, a local activist who spoke during a protest Thursday at the City-County Building. "We’ve been down this road multiple times. It’s not new. How come we can’t see everything that happened? So now why is it our word versus their word again? We can’t win like that.”
Three dead, questions raised
The issue is gaining renewed attention after Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers killed three people in eight hours Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Two men were killed in police shootings, one of which was streamed live on Facebook. An officer driving to work also struck and killed a pregnant pedestrian.
The spate of deaths has rocked the city, prompting protests at the City-County Building and at 62nd Street and Michigan Road, where 21-year-old Dreasjon "Sean" Reed was shot as his phone streamed the incident to thousands of viewers.
Police say Reed had a gun and fired at the officer who was chasing him, but that's not apparent in the Facebook Live video, which over several minutes is often blurred and pointed away from the action. Reed's phone continued to stream after the shooting and picked up a responding detective commenting, "I think it's going to be a closed casket, homie."
The shooting and video have rekindled longstanding tensions between IMPD and black residents and have prompted many people to question the police account of what happened.
Body cameras are not a cure-all for such distrust, which is often rooted in more systemic problems. But after a number of high-profile police-involved shootings across the nation in recent years, most major cities have adopted body cameras as one tool to help restore public trust.
The effectiveness of cameras in reducing police use of force have been mixed, but video footage captured during such interactions can provide critical evidence about what happened.
More than a decade of discussion
In Indianapolis, four police chiefs and two mayors have looked into adopting them and the city completed its second pilot program last year after the police union endorsed the idea. Surveys have shown widespread community support for them.
But after more than a decade of discussion, they have not been implemented.
City officials have repeatedly cited limited financial resources to explain the delays.
Mayor Joe Hogsett, now in his fifth year, has prioritized restoring IMPD's staffing to a level that would allow for a department-wide community-based policing strategy, his spokeswoman, Taylor Schaffer, told IndyStar.
"Once it was clear we were well on our way to achieving those staffing goals, IMPD leadership began to work to ensure that the implementation of body-worn cameras occurs in a way that is financially sustainable and balances privacy interests with the need for transparency," she said.
Hogsett sought and won approval for $1.2 million for body cameras in the city's 2020 budget for a mid- to late-summer deployment, which remains on track, Schaffer said. The city would need to dedicate about $2.4 million annually to support the body camera program in future years, she said.
Frustration with city priorities
The struggle to fund body cameras has been frustrating for community members, especially since many large cities have had body camera programs for several years.
“Every time it comes time for the city council to act they say they don’t have funds for body cams,” said Antonio Lipscomb, an associate pastor at Greater Anointing Fellowship Church who attended Thursday's protest. “We can afford funds for the Pacers stadium, but not for something that can improve the lives of citizens. That needs to end.”
The three deaths also highlight the relative lack of dashboard cameras among IMPD's fleet of vehicles. With the exception of a unit tasked with highway drug investigations, IMPD cars are not equipped with dash cams and the department has no plans to pursue more.
During a Thursday morning news conference, IMPD Chief Randal Taylor called for patience as the department reviews all three fatal incidents. He has called the detective's comments in the aftermath of Reed's death unacceptable and promised disciplinary action.
Taylor's No. 2, Deputy Chief Chris Bailey, also reaffirmed the department's commitment to adopting body cameras, though he said the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the process.
"We never anticipated having body cameras implemented at our agency prior to the mid or late summer," he said. "We're a little bit slowed down because of what's going on with the pandemic. Things have just slowed down. All of city government, our commitment is still to do that."
The promise did little to immediately ease tensions.
Police chief shouted down
Later in the day, Taylor attempted to speak with members of Reed's family during a protest close to the grassy spot between a church and a library where the shooting took place.
Reed's father, Jamie Reed, questioned why there was no body camera footage of his son's shooting. Taylor explained that the department has no body cameras, but is in the process of getting them. After speaking for several more minutes and promising a fair investigation, he was shouted down and left visibly frustrated as protesters launched water bottles at his vehicle.
Hogsett has since asked the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office to monitor investigations of the two police shootings, hoping outside involvement will help reassure wary community members.
Advocates, meanwhile, remain worried about the city's slow adoption of body cameras.
“It’s very concerning," said Willis Bright Jr., chairman of the African American Coalition of Indianapolis. "We have advocated publicly for body cameras and we would restate the need for that and it’s situations like this where the absence of body cameras makes an already difficult situation more difficult."
Civil rights advocates say they will be closely watching what kind of policies the city adopts as it rolls out the cameras.
Privacy issues with cameras
That includes allowing people who file police misconduct complaints to view footage, placing limits on the use of facial recognition and deleting unneeded footage after a reasonable amount of time.
She called the city's failure to adopt body camera policies after two pilot programs "curious," noting that without the footage from Reed's live stream, the public would have no view into what took place.
"If the officer had camera footage on, or even if there were dash cameras to be able to see the pursuit that took place prior to him getting out of his vehicle, that would have given us more information as to what happened in conjunction with the video (Reed) took himself," she said. "These are critical questions the community in Indianapolis should be asking the police department."
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