The death of a 22-year-old drug suspect who had just been arrested by Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office deputies has again raised questions about whether deputies should be required to wear body cameras.
Authorities said Monday that the death of Keeven Robinson is being investigated as a homicide after an autopsy revealed he had been asphyxiated at the neck. Four agents have been placed on desk duty as investigators try to determine whether they used excessive force.
So far, no video footage has emerged of the death of Robinson, who died after leading deputies on a brief chase Thursday.
That's in part because the Jefferson Sheriff's Office, Louisiana’s largest law enforcement agency, has resisted the use of body-worn cameras, even as a growing number of police agencies across the U.S. have deployed them.
Sheriff Joe Lopinto said Monday that the deputies involved in Robinson's death were undercover narcotics agents, suggesting they would not have been wearing cameras even if most deputies did.
“I’m sorry, but our undercover narcotics agents would not have a body camera strapped to their chest on a regular basis,” Lopinto said. “I know people would ask for that, but that’s just not the case when you’re working in that capacity.”
JPSO spokesman Lt. Jason Rivarde later clarified that the officers were not “undercover” as in “pretending to be criminals,” but were in street clothes with their badges displayed.
There is still plenty of debate nationally about whether law enforcement officers — including those who are not in full uniform — should be required to don the cameras for transparency’s sake.
Some departments around the country have not required plainclothes officers to wear such cameras, even when uniformed cops do.
In an interview Monday, Gaylor Spiller, president of the Jefferson Parish branch of the NAACP, said the group thinks all officers should be required to wear body cameras.
“You wear a badge, you say you’re law enforcement, you should wear a camera,” she said. “Find a way to put it on there.”
Spiller said the NAACP had pressed the agency about cameras even before Lopinto became sheriff last year and would “continue to push” for them in the future.
“We strongly believe the cameras would be a good thing to have,” Spiller said, especially given “the way the police do their job, some of them, the way they go way overboard.”
Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana, said the use of body cameras "is a good thing, in general," especially because they can prevent as well as reveal police misconduct, but also conceded there might be "good reasons" for an undercover officer not to wear one.
For years, the use of body-worn cameras has been a subject of national debate. In the wake of the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder funded 50,000 body cameras for agencies across the country.
The results, however, haven't always been transformative, at least so far. This year, a study in Washington, D.C., found that officers who wore body cameras reported using force about as often as those who didn’t. The study also found that outside complaints against the two sets of officers were about even.
A spokesman for the JPSO wasn’t immediately able to provide the number of use-of-force complaints it has investigated in recent years.
In 2015, however, the Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Affairs Division said it had investigated approximately 50 excessive-force complaints against deputies since April 2012, and only two of them were deemed “sustained.”
The JPSO has, however, been a target of recent lawsuits specifically accusing narcotics officers of using excessive force.
For example, Ryan Jackson, who was shot by Jefferson deputies during a drug investigation a year ago in Terrytown, recently filed a federal lawsuit accusing the agency of violating his civil rights.
Jackson claimed he spent a week in a coma and more than a month in a hospital after four rounds from an AR-15 rifle struck him from behind, shattering a shoulder blade and sending bullet fragments into his neck and throat.
Other agencies, including the New Orleans Police Department, use cameras, in part because of complaints about excessive force.
During his campaign for sheriff this year, Lopinto said he would welcome the increased accountability of body cameras, but he cited concerns about the cost of storing the data.
He was in part echoing the opinions of his predecessor, Newell Normand, who said he had considered implementing body cameras but decided against it after conducting what he described as a “quick and dirty study” that showed they would generate huge amounts of video footage that would have to be stored.
Normand told The Advocate in 2015 that the storage would cost about $1.5 million a year, a figure that included the cost of indexing the data. He noted that state public records law requires the footage to be stored for three years.
But he also raised concerns about the public having a chance to second-guess the split-second decisions that deputies often have to make in the middle of life-threatening situations.
“The public is uneasy with the discretion we have now," Normand said then. "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.”