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Police reports of camera infractions raise questions

By Updated: May 17, 2019 11:34 AM CT | Published: May 17, 2019 12:36 AM CT

Officer Louie Tukes recalls firing four shots that night as a fleeing suspect wheeled around and pointed a handgun at him.

The first two missed.

But as an official report of the July 2016 incident would later state, Tukes was certain the second two shots hit the suspect, who disappeared behind a Parkway Village shopping center into the Memphis night.

“I slowed down because he hadn’t dropped his gun. He didn’t fall, and I didn’t wanna increase my kill zone by speeding up with him,’’ Tukes told internal investigators.

But Tukes made a procedural mistake that night. He didn’t report that the dashboard camera in his squad car was inoperable, earning a written reprimand from supervisors who deemed the shooting justifiable despite the lacking video evidence.

A report memorializing the incident appears among hundreds of pages of records released Friday by the Memphis Police Department in answer to a public records request by the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

Those records document a broad range of concerns – officers forgetting to activate body cameras or dashcams in the heat of high-stress confrontations, cameras falling off police as they grapple with suspects, even cases of patrolmen keeping their cameras dark as they allegedly pressured female citizens for sex.

In at least three incidents, officers failed to activate cameras as officers discharged weapons.

Collectively, the disciplinary actions against 51 officers involved in 25 separate incidents demonstrate MPD has much work ahead if it hopes to shore up public trust and bolster transparency promised when it launched a multimillion-dollar body-camera program two years ago.

MPD’s body-camera use has been the focus of intense controversy following the Sept. 17 police shooting of Martavious Banks, 25. He reportedly was shot twice in the back as he ran from the scene of a traffic stop in South Memphis.

Police Director Michael Rallings said the day after the incident the officer who fired the shots didn’t have his body camera turned on. The other two officers involved in the stop “deactivated either their body-worn cameras or in-car video systems during the pursuit,’’ Rallings said.

Records analyzed Friday by the Institute in collaboration with The Daily Memphian show the failure to record Banks’ shooting is just the latest in a long line of camera infractions: As many as 51 officers have faced disciplinary charges in a range of similar incidents since 2016.

Many of the documents raise as many questions as answers.

Reports involving the July 3, 2016, shooting by Officer Tukes don’t say whether the wounded suspect was apprehended. According to the reports, the incident happened after a man told police his home had been burgled. The man alleged an individual was advertising his stolen merchandise on social media. Pretending to be a customer interested in buying back his stolen goods, the man arranged to meet the alleged thief in a Parkway Village parking lot and then called the police.

As Officer Tukes and a second patrolman arrived on the scene, they ordered two suspects to get on the ground. But the suspects fled on foot and one allegedly pulled a handgun, causing Tukes to fire, reports said.

Tukes was written up for violating dashboard-camera policy. Reports show Tukes’ regularly assigned squad car was in the shop because the dashcam wasn’t operating. The dashcam in the replacement car also was inoperable – but Tukes failed to timely report that.

“Officer Tukes stated that the camera in P# 9234 operates differently than the one that he is assigned and was unable to get it to operate properly. Officer Tukes told ISB investigators that he wrote himself (an) email to remind him to notify his supervisor that the camera was malfunctioning,’’ a report said.

The reports don’t indicate whether Tukes was wearing a body camera.

Some reports among the released records document extraordinary acts of bravery like that of Officer Brad Hannah, who engaged in a June 2017 shootout with alleged carjackers. According to reports, Hannah witnessed a carjacking in progress while on patrol in North Memphis, firing seven shots at armed men who’d covered their faces with bandanas.

“Hannah stated he started towards the men on foot,’’ a report said. That’s when he noticed one of the robbers had a shotgun.

“This subject fired one round into the air as the other suspect held the victim at gunpoint. Hannah stated he pointed his service weapon at the suspect who was pointing his weapon at the victim and fired,’’ the report said. The suspects then dropped their weapons and fled on foot.

In all the excitement, Hannah forgot to activate his body camera.

“Hannah advised he did not have time to turn on his camera because of everything that was going on,’’ a report said.

Like many police agencies, MPD allows exceptions to recording requirements if a situation is simply too dangerous. “…Under no circumstance shall an officer’s safety be compromised in an effort to record an event,’’ the policy states.

Given his predicament, Hannah received only a written reprimand.

An Institute investigation earlier this month found that Memphis is not alone in its struggles to deploy and successfully use body cameras – often cameras are simply overlooked because of highly combustible, even dangerous situations.

“What we’re seeing everywhere is officers sometimes forget to turn them on in the immediate stress of a high-profile incident,’’ said Richard W. “Rick’’ Myers, who worked in law enforcement for 40 years before becoming executive director in 2017 of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization that advocates for urban police departments. “Now, nothing is more stressful than an officer-involved shooting.’’

In a phenomenon marked by mechanical failures, training challenges, overwhelmed staffs inexperienced in a new, emerging technology and, in some rare cases, old-school codes of silence, cities like Chicago, Washington and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have struggled to get officers to comply.

And like these other cities, Memphis has invested huge sums of money in camera programs as they attempt to shore up public trust in the wake of highly publicized police shootings of unarmed black men.

Following the 2015 shooting death of Darrius Stewart in Memphis, the city entered a $4.5 million deal with Taser International to equip officers with 2,000 so-called body-worn cameras or BWCs.

The deal with Taser, which has since rebranded itself as Axon, includes video storage, service and maintenance. It could reach $9.4 million if extended over five years. So far, MPD has deployed 1,650 bodycams.

In addition, the city has a contract with Insight Public Sector Inc. that could reach $15 million over five years to install video and automatic vehicle-locator systems in patrol cars.

One potential solution aimed at minimizing officer error in recording involves increasing efforts by manufacturers to provide bodycams with automatic activation triggers already available to dashcams – the video starts recording when the camera senses developments such as sirens coming on, a patrol car door opening or a gun drawn from a holster.

MPD records released Friday show another officer who forgot to activate his camera is Charles White, who said the stress of dealing with his mother’s death led him to violate the body-camera policy when he and a rookie officer responded in June to the scene of a beating death.

When they arrived, the victim was found unresponsive on the sidewalk near Manassas Street and Lane Avenue.

White did not write a report about the incident or tell his supervisors that the man was critical. He also told a rookie officer with him that a report was not “necessary” and he never turned on his body camera to document the scene.  

Instead, the victim’s family had to file an incident report about the aggravated assault.

White told investigators his negligence stemmed from his anguish over losing his mother – he came back too soon after her death, he said.

A decorated officer, White was suspended for nine days without pay for neglect of duty, not notifying his commanding officer, not completing an official report and for violating the body camera policy. 

However, some failures to record are hardly so understandable; they appear as deliberate attempts to cover up wrongdoing.

One involves the 2016 case of a patrolman who was fired and indicted for an alleged on-the-job sexual battery perpetrated while his body camera was in the “off’’ position.

The officer was flagged down by a woman on June 27, 2016, to investigate an accident on Honduras Drive and Southaven Road. He then allegedly asked the woman for her phone number and to meet at a nearby location for sex. When the married woman told him to stop, he pinned her against the car and touched her vagina, threatening reprisals if she told anyone, according to an incident report.

The officer later was indicted on charges of aggravated sexual battery, official misconduct and official oppression.

The Institute is withholding the officer’s name because it wasn’t clear late Friday if the criminal case against him was still pending or if it might have been dropped.

During his administrative hearing the officer denied the allegations, saying the woman was lying about the sexual attack. When his supervisors asked why he didn’t turn on his body camera and in-car camera during the incident, he said, “I didn’t know what I had. It was a mistake.”

MPD policy requires officers to activate body cameras “when responding to all calls for service,’’ and to “record all law-enforcement encounters and activities’’ including “citizen contacts while not engaged in police activity.’’

In a separate incident, officer Erskine Caldwell, a 22-year MPD veteran, was demoted in 2017 after he was accused of having sex with a prostitute while on the job – again with no camera running.

The woman who filed the sexual misconduct complaint against him told police Caldwell paid her $40 for sex twice in 2016. After that he would not leave her alone, she said: He stalked her as she worked on Lamar Avenue, a known area for prostitution. She said when she went to her car around 3 a.m. one morning in November 2016 Caldwell was there waiting for her in his police car.

Caldwell admitted taking his squad car home multiple times and said he failed to turn on his dash camera while on duty because he felt he was not properly trained on the system.

He was found in violation of three departmental policies: failure to comply with in-car video policy, personal conduct and unauthorized use of department vehicles. He was demoted from the rank of sergeant to a patrolman and also suspended 20 days for the violations.

Records also show:

  • Officer Delano Hollowell received a one-day suspension and a written reprimand in 2017 for Tasing a handcuffed suspect as the arrestee attempted to destroy drug evidence. Hollowell did not have his body camera activated at the time.
  • Officers Enis Jackson and Charles McGowan each received a written reprimand in February for failing to activate their body cameras when arresting a robbery suspect who claimed he was injured in the encounter.

In some incidents, officers did turn on their body cameras but they fell off during altercations with suspects.

This was the case for Officer Antonio Knowlton when a man accused the officer of using excessive force during his arrest.

The incident occurred on Feb. 28, 2018, when Knowlton responded to a domestic-violence call on Forest Avenue. Once on the scene, he arrested a man accused of harassing his former girlfriend by banging on her door and windows.

The man got out of his truck and the officer said he decided to detain him for his safety. When he attempted to handcuff the man, the two struggled and Knowlton’s body camera fell off his uniform but it kept recording. Knowlton later reattached the camera to his uniform as the man was arrested.

The camera captured the incident and the excessive-force charge against Knowlton was not sustained. The officer was issued a written reprimand because although his body cam was on during the arrest, his dash camera in his car was not activated. Knowlton told investigators that he forgot to turn his in-car camera on during the incident.

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