Baton Rouge launching pilot program that places body cameras on officers in the high-crime First District _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- Body camera worn by Capt. Todd Weishar in October 2015.

Four days before East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a man in February — a use of force that wasn’t captured on video — the department purchased 80 new dash cameras to replace the 9-year-old, obsolete devices in deputies’ cruisers.

When Sheriff Sid Gautreaux took office in December 2007, one of his first acts was to purchase dash cameras that were installed in 130 deputy vehicles, but the low-quality cameras did not keep up with technological upgrades in the office. They are now mostly useless, Sheriff’s Office officials said.

Gautreaux said the Sheriff’s Office expects to have the new cameras installed in cars within six months and hopes to get body cameras for his deputies to wear soon after.

“I’m very receptive to both,” Gautreaux said. “Any time I have a video, we are better off than not having video.”

But those updates obviously will not help as investigators untangle what happened Feb. 23 in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in an apartment parking lot who deputies say threatened them with his car.

The incident started when deputies received a call from Travis Stevenson’s girlfriend saying he had pepper sprayed her and her child.

Officers located Stevenson inside his car on Terrace Avenue, parked outside an apartment building and in front of a metal pole. A deputy pulled in behind his car, blocking it. Stevenson rammed the deputy’s car, pulling forward, then backward, officials have said.

Deputies got out of their vehicles and smashed in Stevenson’s car window and attempted to pull him out. It’s unclear what happened after that. The incident ended when four of the six deputies at the scene fired 20 rounds and killed Stevenson, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III has said.

The Sheriff’s Office is not commenting on the shooting, noting the investigation is being handled by State Police. Trooper 1st Class Bryan Lee said the agency eventually will turn its findings over to the District Attoreny’s Office.

While it is unclear if a dash camera was installed in any of the Sheriff’s Office cars, Moore has said there is no video of the incident.

According to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks, the previous administration selected the dash cameras purchased in 2007 but stopped short of making the buy. The 140 cameras were bought after Gautreaux assumed office, but the Sheriff’s Office can’t say how much was spent, with Hicks saying they do not retain records that old.

About 130 of the cameras were installed, she said.

“Unfortunately, technology advanced so quickly that the cameras became obsolete in terms of interfacing with our new software and technological upgrades,” Hicks said.

Hicks said the cameras stopped functioning at various times but couldn’t pinpoint when the cameras essentially were rendered useless. A few still work, she said.

On Feb. 19, the Sheriff’s Office purchased 80 new dash cameras for $399,600 and will purchase 80 more after the fiscal year ends in July, Hicks said. The agency will begin installing the first batch of cameras the first week of April, she said.

“It’s a done deal,” Gautreaux said.

Gautreaux said the first installation should be completed within three months and that all of the 160 marked units will have dash cameras within six months.

As of October, the Baton Rouge Police Department reported using 400 police-car cameras and is participating in a pilot program equipping officers with body cameras, which Police Chief Carl Dabadie recently deemed a success at a public forum.

Across the country, camera footage has aided multiple investigations into officer-involved shootings, sometimes vindicating law enforcement of suspicion and sometimes confirming victims’ stories.

For example, officials in Baton Rouge have said footage from a recent fatal shootout Feb. 13 that left one man dead and two police officers wounded gave investigators a clear understanding of what took place that early morning.

The confrontation was captured on dashboard cameras in police patrol cars and by officer-worn body cameras. Moore told The Advocate last month what he saw clearly illustrated the officers were justified in firing their weapons. That footage has not been released to the public, and Moore has said the investigation is ongoing.

Likewise, body camera video of an officer-involved shooting in Marksville revealed that two city reserve deputy marshals opened fire on a man’s vehicle after a chase on Nov. 3, authorities have said. The marshals fatally shot the man’s son, a passenger, in the head and torso and wounded his father. Though none of the Marksville police cars had dash cameras, a police officer who was present wore a body camera, which an arrest report said captured footage showing the father’s “empty hands are raised and visible when gunfire becomes audible.”

This footage led State Police to arrest the deputy marshals, who were indicted on second-degree murder charges last year. The video has not been released publicly.

Gautreaux said he supports the use of body cameras and wants his officers outfitted with them.

He said he expects all his deputies to be sporting body cameras within the next two years, though his office is still looking for the right product and possible grants to help cover costs.

“I’m sitting back to see which is the best for the price,” Gautreaux said. “Let someone else work out all the kinks, and we’ll go from there.”

Three months into a body camera pilot program, Baton Rouge police switched from L-3 body cameras to an equivalent from the better-known Taser company. Dabadie told the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in January the police were having trouble keeping the L-3 body cameras attached to their uniforms and that the cameras had some technical glitches.

The Police Department used $105,000 of its reserve funds to cover the cost of launching the pilot program that uses 100 cameras.

Baton Rouge police have amassed about 4,000 dash camera videos and 3,000 body camera videos per month since October. The department applied for a $300,000 grant in March 2015 but was passed over for the award.

Gautreaux said, policywise, he is most concerned about whether the video footage captured by body cameras will be public record, citing significant costs if the Sheriff’s Office is expected to provide footage to citizens. He said he worries about how his agency will pay to store data from the body cameras without state funding, as well.

“If it is a matter of public record, we have to archive those things and maintain them, and when someone wants them, you’ve got to edit it,” Gautreaux said. “It’s a very costly venture. I’d have to hire five or six people to do that full time.”

Gautreaux said the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in Panama City, Florida, has estimated that it would cost its agency about $4 million per year if all the footage were public record.

The New Orleans Police Department uses Taser for its body camera program and has budgeted a total of $2.7 million over five years for a total of 620 cameras plus software.

“It’s going to cost a pretty big chunk from everything I’ve heard,” he said, adding that he has had conversations with officials from the National Sheriffs’ Association on the topic. “Where do you get all that money from?”

Gautreaux said if the state mandates the use of body cameras, it could help the Sheriff’s Office, as his staff is having trouble finding grant money to cover the expenses. If it becomes a mandate, perhaps the state would help with financing.

The Legislature created the Louisiana Law Enforcement Body Camera Implementation Task Force in 2015 to make recommendations on how to implement and develop procedures surrounding the use of body cameras.

The task force expects to present a report to the Legislature on its findings by the end of the year.

Moore echoed Gautreaux’s concerns, saying that while all law enforcement agencies should consider cameras, there remain significant policy questions about how officials should handle data storage and review the video and what to do in the event of a malfunction.

Moore also said video footage of confidential informants and bystanders could present privacy problems.

“We’re still kind of new at this as a country,” Moore said.

Franz Borghardt, a defense attorney and the elected chairman of the state task force, said while some believe the same public access policies that surround dash cameras should apply to body cameras, others say the footage body cameras capture lend themselves to more strict public access laws.

South Carolina passed a law directing all police to use body cameras but exempted all of the footage captured by those cameras from disclosure under that state’s open records laws.

In contrast, Florida has not mandated law enforcement officers wear body cameras but has made footage accessible to public if the video isn’t obtained in someone’s home or somewhere a person can expect reasonable privacy, including a health care or social services facility.

Borghardt said policy issues do present a significant obstacle in quickly implementing body cameras but that there is no reason the Sheriff’s Office has not already installed functioning dash cameras in most of its deputies’ units.

“In the modern world, it’s becoming inexcusable not to have these,” Borghardt said of dash cameras. “It protects our officers and citizens, and in most instances, the dash videos are cost-affordable.”

Follow Danielle Maddox Kinchen on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.