By John Simerman, Michelle Hunter and Ramon Antonio Vargas | NOLA.com-The New Orleans Advocate | June 27, 2020
A shooting last month that left a Black welder dead in Marrero after he bolted from deputies was only the latest episode of fatal force by Jefferson Parish deputies to raise suspicions that will not be settled by footage from a body-worn camera.
Sheriff Joe Lopinto’s office is the largest state law enforcement agency not to use body-worn cameras, and Lopinto has no plans to change that. That increasingly makes him an outlier: Over half of Louisiana sheriffs, and nearly every large police force in the state, now deploy them.
Killed by deputies on May 27, Modesto Reyes is one of five people, all Black, whose deaths since 2018 in confrontations with Jefferson Parish deputies have raised cries for more transparency from the office, and for deployment of body cameras specifically.
Those demands, seeped in mistrust and fear within Black communities that have long railed against police brutality, have grown louder since Reyes was fatally shot, two days after the death of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis unleashed a wave of pent-up fury across the country.
Police departments nationwide began using body cameras in significant numbers a decade ago. About a third of municipal police departments had them by 2013, and studies suggest a majority do now.
The New Orleans Police Department rolled them out in 2014 under former Superintendent Ronal Serpas, adding to a slate of other reforms overseen by a federal judge under a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that remains in place.
But just across the parish line, where Jefferson deputies follow starkly different rules — over stops, chases, use of force and the disciplinary process — former Sheriff Newell Normand, and now Lopinto, have balked.
“I’m not against body cameras, but I’ve got to be able to pay for them, and I don’t have the extra money sitting around,” Lopinto said, while citing a litany of stumbling blocks: manpower, questions on data storage, privacy issues and what he considers inadequate direction from Louisiana public records laws.
Lopinto said he awaits legislation that would let law enforcement agencies discard video earlier than is currently allowed, while also curtailing large-scale public records requests.
Now, anything generated by the agency is a public record that must be kept for three years. With the office handling 400,000 calls for service annually, to catalogue and store video from each would be pricey, he complained.
Lopinto said the Sheriff’s Office could implement body cameras within the next five years, sooner if he can persuade the Legislature to act.
“I am moving to propose legislation to create an environment that will make body cameras affordable not only for my agency, but for other agencies,” Lopinto said. “I can’t just look at the camera cost, storage. I have to look at the extra personnel I would need in place.”
The explanations ring hollow for some residents, particularly those who’ve taken to the streets to protest the office’s use of deadly force.
“The Black community, we fear the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office,” said Dr. Ashonta Wyatt, an educator and a member of The Village Keepers, a community group that has rallied behind families seeking answers about their loved ones’ deaths at the hands of police.
“I believe there is a lack of trust, there’s a lack of buy-in from the standpoint of the community,” she added. “Putting body cameras on is a show of good faith.”
Lopinto’s office isn’t alone among Louisiana’s largest sheriff’s offices and police departments in its circumspect approach to deploying the technology. Among large agencies in the state, sheriffs in East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany and Ouachita parishes also go without them, citing similar concerns, though St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith recently pledged to deploy them.
Locally, Lopinto has company. There are no body cams on officers in Gretna or in Kenner, the largest municipal police force in Louisiana without them, according to figures from the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice.
Half of the 10 sheriff’s offices in Louisiana with the most sworn officers now deploy body-worn cameras.
The number of agencies turning to body-worn cameras has grown dramatically in the wake of high-profile police killings like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore a year later, experts say. Federal grant money began rolling out in 2015 to help local police pay for it. Lopinto’s office has not sought to tap those grants.
The sheriff doesn’t dispute that body cam footage may have helped answer allegations of misconduct by his deputies in several recent officer-involved shootings that have roiled the Black community.
Among those incidents:
—Only private surveillance cameras in an Old Jefferson convenience store caught glimpses of the May 10, 2018, pursuit that ended with the death of Keeven Robinson, 22. An autopsy determined he died of compressional asphyxia with “significant traumatic injuries to the soft tissues of the neck” from a struggle with narcotics deputies.
The coroner deemed Robinson’s death a homicide. Four detectives who chased him were placed on desk duty, a rarity under Sheriff’s Office policy. One of them, David Lowe, now works for Louisiana State Police. The Jefferson Parish district attorney’s office has yet to announce whether any of the detectives will face criminal charges.
—Chris Joseph, 38, and Daviri Robertson, 39, were shot dead inside a car parked outside a Terrytown IHOP on March 27, 2019, during an undercover drug sting. Deputies claim they fired when Joseph began backing up. A narcotics officer was wounded by friendly fire.
Joseph and Robertson’s families say investigators found no drugs or guns in the vehicle. Lopinto’s office has not contested that assertion.
—Leo Brooks, 23, was shot and killed inside a Metairie apartment on July 17, 2019, after deputies say he reached for a pistol as they tried to take him into custody on a warrant for an earlier shooting.
—Two months before Reyes was fatally shot by deputies in Marrero, an unarmed 14-year-old boy was shot in the back after a chase by vehicle and on foot that ended in a Westwego backyard. The boy survived. The Sheriff’s Office didn’t notify the public of the March 20 shooting, as it usually does, and it only came to light after the boy’s family went to the media. Lopinto has since said his office will alert the public anytime deputies shoot someone.
Suspicions over those incidents and others have festered in the Black community. In Reyes’ case, it led to dueling news conferences this month with conflicting narratives of what happened. There was some video from a deputy’s stun gun, but Lopinto has been unwilling to show it to the family.
“Body cameras in use-of-force situations are going to help me more than it’s going to hurt me the vast majority of the times,” Lopinto said. “I would like to have had body camera footage with all of them, but I’ve also got a budget to balance.”
In New Orleans, police brass have a policy to release video of cases where officers shoot people, usually within 10 days. The department followed that policy after each of the three fatal shootings by NOPD in 2019. In each case, the clip showed the slain person had first shot at or aimed a gun at police.
The goal is “giving enough of an idea to what occurred,” NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said. “It stops the rumor mill. It prevents anyone from coming up with their own agenda (or) narrative with what occurred.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a private watchdog group in New Orleans, said body-worn cameras are now “what the public expects, and I think it’s a type of technology that will become better, cheaper and more easily managed as it evolves and grows.”
Dana Coleman, Houma’s first Black police chief, said he doesn’t understand the reluctance of some departments to embrace cameras.
With about 80 officers, the Houma Police Department got officers outfitted with body cameras in 2014 and hasn’t looked back, he said. The department recently adopted technology that automatically activates police body cameras that are nearby when an officer draws a gun.
“They may have some reasons. I know it has overwhelmingly assisted our agency,” Coleman said.
“Even before this event, a lot of people within society expect it. I know anytime I hear an agency that does not have body cameras, I’m like, ‘Wow,’” he added.
Houma paid about $200,000 for the gear and uses a cloud-based video storage system. Under a new deal with the vendor, it now pays $19,000 a year for storage and equipment, police officials said.
Costs for larger agencies obviously run higher. But the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed more than 800 law enforcement agencies in 2015 and found that the largest police departments went in heaviest for body cams, with nearly half of all large police agencies having adopted them by then.
The survey also looked at the cost in three cities — Phoenix, Mesa, Arizona; and Dallas — and found the per-camera costs ranged from $1,125 to $2,900, including extra manpower to respond to records requests.
Lopinto’s office, with a total staff of more than 1,400, benefits from a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax and an annual budget of $128 million. The department has maintained a fund balance at year’s end that hovers around $48 million — at least before the coronavirus pandemic.
State Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey, says he understands Lopinto’s concerns but contends the pricing is not unreasonable.
Lyons said the policy decision over whether to deploy body-worn cameras is a direct comment on a department’s willingness to favor transparency in use-of-force cases. He drafted a resolution that the state House of Representatives passed recently calling on the Sheriff’s Office to move forward with body-worn cameras.
“This is the will of the people, and of the industry itself,” Lyons said.
The resolution has no legal teeth, and Lopinto has said it is “of no moment” without new funding.
The police research group found 92% of law enforcement agencies that answered the survey counted increasing public trust as their primary reason for adopting cameras.
Serpas, who brought body cams into the NOPD years after the agency had implemented dashboard cameras, said he did it to build the public’s faith in the broader reforms under the federal consent decree. He said the videos could also be used as a training tool and would secure more evidence when reviewing allegations of officer misconduct.
“It gives us evidence to look at that we didn’t have before,” said Serpas, speaking generally.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office said it could not readily answer how much the NOPD’s body cameras cost the city. But upon implementing them, the NOPD set aside about $1.2 million over five years — most of it for data storage, some for training. The gear has gotten cheaper since, Serpas noted.
Lopinto, however, has suggested the cost would be much higher, estimating the cost at $1.9 million a year, not including personnel and records costs.
Research on the impact of body cams on officer and citizen conduct has so far produced mixed results.
Studies in Milwaukee and Washington D.C. found no reduction in use-of-force incidents after cameras were randomly assigned to officers, though several studies have found that officers who wear them receive fewer complaints than officers who don’t.
Some research suggests the slide in complaints has less to do with a change in officer behavior than a reduction in frivolous gripes by citizens who know they’re being recorded. That’s been the case in Houma, Coleman said.
According to a review by researchers at George Mason University of scores of studies, results varied over whether officers were less prone to conduct a stop-and-frisk while wearing a camera.
More broadly, the study found research lacking on whether the cameras have reduced disparities in the treatment of suspects or arrestees.
Donovan Livaccari, attorney and spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in New Orleans, said NOPD officers generally favor body cameras now. Livaccari said he’s seen a reduction in complaints against officers, though he said the reasons are unclear.
“I think the biggest problem was just for people to get over the concern that it was going to be a tool for the department to second-guess people, which frankly, it does get used that way at times,” Livaccari said.
But Livaccari said some of the worst fears of officers haven’t panned out.
“I don’t necessarily hold it against the sheriffs who choose not to have those cameras,” he said. “Frankly, his constituents are the ones he has to worry about making happy. If his constituents don’t view it as a reasonable expense, that’s on his constituents.”
West Bank community activist Gaylor Spiller, who has stood with the families of Robinson and other men killed by the Sheriff’s Office through the years, said she believes the agency’s refusal to adopt body cameras is meant to shield the agency’s version of events from being challenged.
“And the impacts of that are predominantly Black,” said Spiller. She noted that Robertson, Joseph, Robinson, Reyes, Brooks and the shot 14-year-old boy are all Black.
“Why wouldn’t you be want to be free of being accused of doing anything wrong? Every Black community in Jefferson Parish knows the Sheriff’s Office has been doing this for a long time.”