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Not all Lexington police have body cameras. In 2019, they weren't activated 329 times.

Lexington Herald-Leader - 6/27/2020

Jun. 26--In February 2019, Lexington Police Chaplain Donovan Stewart was at an off-duty assignment at the Fayette Mall when he responded to a report that a group of Black teens was disorderly.

A February federal lawsuit filed against Stewart and the city of Lexington alleges a video shot by a bystander shows Stewart punching an autistic black teenager in the face and head. The lawsuit accuses Stewart of continuing to hit the boy after he was restrained on the mall floor with both hands "under control" and not posing a threat.

The bystander video is the only video of the incident.

Because Stewart is a chaplain, he was not issued a body-worn camera. A second Lexington police officer, who was also present and visible in the bystander video, had a body-worn camera but failed to turn it on, police officials have said.

In court documents, the city has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. Meanwhile, an internal police investigation of Stewart's actions has been halted because of the civil lawsuit and a criminal case involving the minor teen.

The delay of that internal police investigation has been questioned by many who are now calling on Lexington to increase police department accountability and transparency. As a result, camera use and policy could get more scrutiny from elected leaders.

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430 out of 609 sworn officers have cameras

Stewart is one of 179 Lexington police officers not issued body cameras. Of the 609 sworn officers, 430 officers have cameras, department officials said.

That means roughly one-third of sworn officers don't have body cameras.

Police department data shows failure to activate body-worn cameras is the public integrity unit's top problem with more than 300 reports per year since 2018. A distant second -- with 177 in 2019 -- is officer-involved collisions.

In 2018, the first year it was tracked, the department reported 367 activation failures. In 2019, that number dropped to 329, a 10 percent decline.

From Jan. 1 to May 31, there were 86 activation failures. That's down nearly 48 percent from the same time period in 2019 when there were 166 failures.

Lack of body camera footage was an issue in two high-profile police-involved killings in Louisville in the past three months.

When Louisville police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant in mid-March, there was no body-worn camera footage. Similarly, Louisville Metro Police officers failed to activate body cameras in the shooting that killed restaurant owner David McAtee during protests over Taylor's death and other police-involved slayings across the country. Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad was fired after it was revealed there was no body camera footage of the McAtee shooting.

Earlier this month, the Louisville Metro Council passed Breonna's Law, which banned the use of no-knock warrants that allow officers to enter without knocking. Breonna's Law also required any officer serving a warrant to have a body camera.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council has not taken any action yet on proposed changes to police procedures.

Mayor Linda Gorton issued a moratorium on no-knock warrants earlier this month with one exception -- if a life was in immediate danger. A videographer is present when no-knock warrants are used, Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers told the council last week.

But Weathers also said not every officer who serves warrants has a body camera.

Councilman James Brown said the department's body camera use may be addressed July 14, the next meeting at which the council will discuss possible changes to police policy in response to protesters' and public demands.

"We may need a complete review of the body camera policy. Who wears one and why? And when are they activated?" Brown said.

Councilman Angela Evans, a lawyer, said the department's body camera use has also been raised by many criminal defense lawyers.

"I think the public wants more body cameras" Evans said. "Council is ready to discuss the issues the public has raised. "

Cost of body-worn cameras is high

The council approved a $2.6 million five-year contract for the initial purchase of 800 cameras in 2016. The purchase was driven in part by calls from activists, including the NAACP, to increase transparency in the wake of police-involved killings of Black people across the country. Those initial body cameras were purchased in 2016 and 2017.

The department has since purchased an additional 30 cameras.

The annual cost for that contract is $600,000 per year. Much of the expense is storing video and data.

"There is a substantial cost to it," Brown said of adding more cameras. "But the public may think it's worth the investment."

Adrian Wallace, vice president of the Lexington chapter of the NAACP and chairman of the Kentucky NAACP political action committee, helped push the city in 2016 to buy the cameras. Wallace also has a unique perspective -- he is a volunteer chaplain with the Lexington police department.

"The point is accountability and transparency," Wallace said of the cameras. "If you don't have a camera, and you are going to be moonlighting, you need to have a camera."

The police department should find the money within its budget and not ask for additional funds, Wallace said. Public safety -- police, fire, corrections, 911 -- is more than half the city's general fund budget.

Lexington police want more body cameras

The police department would like more cameras, said police spokeswoman Brenna Angel.

Personnel with cameras include those that routinely deal with the public, including officers and sergeants assigned to the patrol bureau, uniformed detectives and officers in the narcotics units. Those who don't have body cameras are typically in supervisory or administrative roles with no or limited interaction with the public. They include staff in training, central records and computer services.

"Ideally, a body-worn camera would be available to all sworn officers. When Lexington police initially started the BWC program, we had a plan for 400 officer assignments, and that has grown to 430 assignments," Angel said. " The department has a continual process of evaluating and implementing additional cameras when feasible."

Officers on off-duty assignments -- where they are acting as police officers but are being paid by a private organization -- are required to wear cameras. But that's only if the officer is assigned a camera, Angel said. Stewart, the chaplain, was not issued a body camera.

The department has stressed the importance of camera use repeatedly to officers. That's one of the reasons behind the decline in failure to activate the equipment over the past few years, Angel said. Officers also realize the cameras are important, she said.

Not all failures were officers forgetting to turn on cameras. Technical issues, including battery life, also contributed to activation failures, she said.

"The BWC equipment has improved and made it easier for an officer to know when the camera is activated. There is also a more durable cord connection between the camera and the battery pack," Angel said.

Department supervisors and the public integrity unit monitor body camera activation failures. An officer with too many activation failures can be punished.

"Supervisors look at those factors and keep track of the BWC activation failures to see if there is a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed through coaching and counseling or possible discipline," Angel said. Coaching and counseling is a form of retraining and is not considered discipline.

Officers have been punished for failing to activate cameras. So far this year, at least two officers were disciplined for failing to activate cameras, according to publicly available police data on formal complaints. The information does not include officers' names or details about the incidents.

One officer received a written reprimand in March 2020. That same month, a second officer received a two-week unpaid suspension and a 60-day home fleet suspension for violating the department's camera policy and the department's vehicle pursuit policies.

The use of body camera footage has also raised eyebrows over the past months.

Earlier this month, the department released videos of protesters yelling at police officers -- among other videos taken from officers' body-worn cameras -- during more than two weeks of protests and marches. Police officials have said they released the videos, in lengthy clips, to show the professionalism of Lexington police officers under extreme pressure and verbal assaults.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lexington Bluegrass Lodge 4 and some of its leadership posted versions of those videos on social media.

Some said the videos were edited to discredit and demonize protesters who have called for police accountability and reform.

"By selectively releasing this footage, the LPD was weaponizing the body camera footage which many of these same protesters demanded the city buy to give citizens a degree of protection from police violence," said Patrice Muhammad, a columnist producer and host of Key Conversations Radio.


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