When it comes to technology in law enforcement, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office regards itself as a trailblazer. From his sprawling network of automatic license plate readers to the drones he plans to deploy for crime-scene documentation, Sheriff Newell Normand takes no small pride in standing on the cutting edge.
“Our agency has been viewed as kind of the leader of technology in the state, if not the Gulf South and, in many respects, the country,” Normand said.
But amid a broadening national discussion about police accountability, Jefferson Parish’s top cop has balked at one innovation that’s being employed by more and more law enforcement agencies in Louisiana and beyond: body-worn cameras.
The devices, which record officer interactions with citizens, have been heralded as a game-changer in neighboring New Orleans and have been rolled out in smaller jurisdictions like Thibodaux and Assumption Parish. The cameras, many law enforcement leaders say, cut down on officer complaints and boost transparency, particularly in cases involving use of force by police.
But even in a year in which his deputies have been involved in five shootings to date, Normand remains an outspoken skeptic about the technology, citing questions about the cost of storing footage and limitations in the vantage point of most body-worn cameras.
The sheriff’s biggest concern, however, might be described as philosophical. He worries — as many other sheriffs presumably do — about what will happen once the public is invited to review deputies’ split-second decisions.
“The public is uneasy with the discretion we have now. They’re uneasy and are Monday-morning quarterbacking the discretion that an officer has and the utilization of the tools that are on his duty belt right now,” Normand said in a recent interview. “We’re setting our officers up, big time.”
Body cameras have been on sale to police for more than a decade. But it has only been in the past few years, as the technology gets cheaper and smaller, that they have made inroads in major departments nationwide.
The New Orleans Police Department was one of the first big-city law enforcement agencies to deploy the technology on a widespread basis. Former Superintendent Ronal Serpas announced the rollout of the devices in January 2014 as part of an effort to build public confidence in a department battered by a withering Justice Department review of officer misconduct. The NOPD now has roughly 520 cameras, with another 100 on order.
As the cameras become less expensive, many smaller municipalities are now embracing the technology as well. In Assumption Parish, Sheriff Mike Waguespack said he explained to his deputies when introducing body cameras in January that the devices were intended more to protect them than to police them.
Researchers found in one study of police in Mesa, Arizona, that cameras reduced civilian complaints against officers assigned to wear them by 40 percent. Waguespack has seen similar results. Since the cameras were deployed, he said, he has not received a single formal complaint from a citizen about a deputy.
“It took me a while to study it and go through the process, but once I was convinced, I embraced it,” Waguespack said. “I think it’s been one of the best tools we’ve put in our toolbox in a long time.”
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said body cameras were more pressing for the NOPD than the JPSO. Not only is the NOPD subject to a federal consent decree, but it is still trying to recover from scandals such as the Danziger Bridge shooting that shattered public confidence in the force, he said.
“I think it makes perfect sense for New Orleans, but it may not be as high of a priority for Jefferson Parish,” Goyeneche said. “New Orleans and Jefferson Parish are apples and oranges. They’re two different entities with different dynamics and different issues.”
A check on complaints
In the wake of the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, President Barack Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder in December announced funding for 50,000 body cameras for agencies across the country.
Citing a report from the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services and the Police Executive Research Forum, the administration suggested the cameras would cut down on civilian complaints while building trust between officers and the communities they serve.
Normand, however, questioned whether Obama has offered up a solution in search of a problem.
“What are we racing to the technology to avoid?” Normand asked. “An anomaly case that happens out there?”
While Jefferson Parish has not seen anything approaching the degree of police misconduct that has plagued New Orleans for decades, Sheriff’s Office records and federal court documents make clear the JPSO has received its share of complaints.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Affairs Division has investigated approximately 50 excessive-force complaints against deputies since April 2012 — only two of which were deemed “sustained.” During Normand’s eight years as sheriff, the department has paid at least $358,000 to settle excessive-force lawsuits.
Normand described the number of complaints his office receives as “statistically insignificant” compared with the hundreds of thousands of calls for service his office receives. And in many of the federal court settlements, Normand said it was simply cheaper for his agency to settle out of court than to pay a team of lawyers to defend a claim at trial.
Normand also said he worries that body cameras — typically affixed to the lapel or the chest level of an officer’s uniform — don’t mirror a deputy’s line of sight. He offered a hypothetical example of an officer seated in his vehicle and turning his head left or right, perhaps to engage an approaching — or attacking — pedestrian. Much of that action would not be captured, Normand said, because the camera would remain trained straight ahead.
“I’ve had a very difficult time in getting a lot of people to recognize that this thing is flawed,” Normand said. “We’ve created this expectation that what the deputy sees, the camera sees, and that’s not the case.”
‘Where the eyes are’
In theory, Normand said, he would be more open to a version of body cameras in which the lens is built into a pair of glasses. He said a couple of his deputies are currently piloting that type of body camera — “The location of the camera has to be where the eyes are” — but he stressed that he has not committed to a larger-scale deployment.
The Fraternal Order of Police, while not opposed to cameras outright, has similar concerns about their limitations.
“They are not the end-all, be-all of what happened,” said Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the New Orleans FOP Crescent City Lodge. “There’s always more to the story than what’s on video footage, and sometimes the video footage flat-out misrepresents what happened.”
Another of Normand’s concerns comes down to simple dollars and cents. By the JPSO’s estimate, the agency would generate between 1.5 and 1.7 petabytes of data a year if its deputies were equipped with cameras on a wide scale. (A petabyte is 1 quadrillion bytes.) Normand said storing that kind of data could cost the department $4.5 million a year, “and that doesn’t take into consideration how much it costs to index the data.”
“I’ve got a $100 million budget,” he added. “I don’t know that the public wants to pay more taxes to pay for this.”
Other police forces, however, have managed to maintain their databases on far less. NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble said the department paid $280,596 for software license, storage and service fees in 2014 and anticipates spending the same amount this year.
Proponents of body-worn cameras said they suspect Normand’s opposition to the devices has less to do with budgetary concerns than an unwillingness to question — and potentially undermine — the word and authority of deputies, particularly in he-said, she-said confrontations.
Gary Bizal, a New Orleans lawyer who has filed several federal lawsuits against Normand alleging excessive force on the part of deputies, dismissed the sheriff’s various arguments against body cameras as “specious.”
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the general public that doesn’t agree that body cameras worn by police officers are beneficial to whoever’s telling the truth,” Bizal said. “The only people that don’t like body cameras are people that don’t want people to know what happened — that’s it.”
In an era when every smartphone has a video camera, ordinary citizens are increasingly able to provide their own version of encounters with police.
Normand earlier this year became indignant — and held a fiery news conference — after one of his deputies, Detective Nicholas Breaux, was recorded on a cellphone video punching a teenager in the face during a violent arrest that prompted a civil rights investigation by the FBI.
Normand said the video was misleading because it captured just seconds of an encounter that lasted several minutes.
Breaux and the teenager, Brady Becker, offered conflicting accounts of what precipitated the arrest — an exchange that presumably would have been captured in greater detail had Breaux been wearing a body camera.
State Rep. Dalton Honoré, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored legislation this session initially meant to require body cameras for all police officers. His bill was watered down to a study commission, he said, in the face of “hostile” opposition from sheriffs.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, said his group neither opposes nor supports body cameras, but, echoing Normand’s concerns, believes there remain many unanswered questions about their use.
“It definitely needs to be studied,” Ranatza said, “and there should be a lot of caution if you were to get into this.”
Ultimately, Honoré sees cameras being accepted by both police and citizens. He was the first African-American sheriff’s deputy in East Baton Rouge Parish in 1965, and he believes cameras can help bridge the gap between minority groups and police by providing a final word on contentious incidents.
“The picture’s worth a thousand words. It’s a good benefit for the citizens; it’s a benefit for the police,” he said. “There’s always two sides to a story — but when you can produce a camera, it’s a little different.”
Advocate staff writer Marsha Shuler contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter @JimMustian. Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter @mgsledge.