At some point past two hours into a police standoff last August, Olathe police and the Johnson County deputies backing them up decided to forcefully enter a home where a mentally distressed and most likely armed woman was waiting.
But unlike during the first hour of the standoff when police discussed reasons not to enter the home, none of the deputies' body cameras picked up on the pivotal conversations that led them into the house. The decision had tragic consequences for 26-year-old Ciara Howard, whom police shot as she waved a gun.
In reviewing what happened, investigators — and the public — don't have any record of the decision-making conversations that the body cameras could have provided.
One by one, most of the deputies had powered their body cameras off.
The situation illustrates why many law enforcement agencies and watchdog organizations say body cameras should stay on as long as officers remain at or near such events as the Olathe standoff.
“You never know when down time goes to action time,” said Nancy La Vigne, vice president of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Those are the times you most want it activated.”
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden defended his deputies, saying officers have a right to private, confidential conversations unrelated to the scene of a police incident when they are not involved in the event.
His department's body camera policy states that deputies shall activate their cameras to record "all anticipated contacts with citizens/inmates in the performance of official duties." The policy further states that deputies "should make every effort to record events in their entirety" and that if a recording has to be stopped early, the deputy should record the reason.
Hayden said the deputies could have considered themselves no longer on an event when they were waiting for Olathe to decide its course of action during the standoff.
But the conversations officers have when they are staged at potential crime scenes can be important, said Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.
“You should capture the full breadth” of any police engagement, Marlow said. “Otherwise you can lose key events that led to an action.
“You’re cutting off conversations that could be valuable ... to learn from it for better police policies going forward,” he said, “and the public will be able to advocate for better policies.”
Hayden's deputies recorded more than 23 hours' worth of footage overall. The Star obtained the body camera footage after filing a lawsuit in Johnson County District Court for access to the public video files. After receiving the video files, The Star dropped its lawsuit.
As to whether county cameras missed opportunities to record discussions about going in the house, Hayden said, “It was not my officers’ call” to go into the house. “We weren’t making the decisions.”
The county was on the scene in support of the Olathe Police Department, which was in command, Hayden said. Olathe police do not have body cameras.
Officer discretion on use of their body cameras, which experts agree is necessary, has emerged as one of the complicated issues as more departments across the nation use body cameras.
“It has led to a tremendous gray area in policy,” La Vigne said. “And agencies are navigating it much differently.”
Most states have statutes in place that govern the public distribution of body camera footage, but policies on when officers should record — or not record — are determined usually by each police agency.
Police departments typically work with the local county prosecutor, said Sheldon Lineback, executive director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association.
There is no single standard, he said. Police departments with cameras have to strike a balance between issues of privacy, the criminal justice process and public accountability, he said.
“It is not constant,” Lineback said.
The push for body cameras has grown over the past 15 years as the technology improved and several high-profile police shootings were captured on cellphones or surveillance cameras.
“People assumed they could be on 24/7,” La Vigne said. “But that’s not something that can ever happen anywhere.”
Privacy issues arise when police encounter people in places where they would expect privacy, such as in their homes. There are also times when witnesses or victims with information on a crime out of fear for their safety will not want to be recorded.
The Johnson County deputies, the footage shows, generally shut down their cameras throughout the afternoon without explanation or evident reasons.
One deputy, before clicking off, was heard asking others around him on the scene, "You guys done recording?"
At one point, a deputy started to speak critically of the SWAT team that didn't come and another deputy who still had his camera on interrupted him, saying, "I'm recording."
The Police Executive Research Forum recommends, with limited exceptions, that officers be required to activate their cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters while on duty, such as traffic stops, searches, interrogations, pursuits and arrests.
The PERF recommends that once a camera is on, it should remain on until the incident is over, the officer has left the scene, or a supervisor has approved turning it off.
The more a policy limits the officer’s discretion to turn it off, the better it protects the officer, Marlow said.
If a camera is turned off but then it misses critical action, people may assume it was turned off with “malevolent motives,” Marlow said, when the officer’s intentions were good.
“When in doubt, leave it on,” he said.