Lawrence Police Department’s camera system is not only creating transparency, but also improving officer safety, reducing false complaints and working as a de-escalation tool.
By the time Carmel Police Officer Shane VanNatter shot and killed a man who is accused of killing one person and wounding another, the city had been outfitting all of its police officers with body cameras for over a year, spending almost $912,000 over five years.
The goal of the cameras was to increase efficiency and transparency, but there is no footage of the shooting that left suspect Julio Cesar Virula, 26, dead this summer. VanNatter’s camera had fallen off when he was running after his rifle bumped it.
If he had a different body camera mount, that may have been avoided and there could be more concrete documentation of what happened that day.
It’s certainly not the first time a body camera has failed to capture what it’s supposed to, but experts say there is not any universally known data on how often cameras become dislodged.
“It’s not unheard of and it has been a concern that the field has had since the beginning,” said Natalie Todak, a professor a the University of Alabama Birmingham who was involved in some of the earliest field research on body cameras. “This does still happen in the field despite different manufacturers doing different things to make them stay on stronger.”
Lt. Darrin Emmons is shown wearing a body cam in front of a rack of charging Axon body cameras at the Fishers Police Department on Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. Officers on the Fishers force will begin wearing them in January. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)
Deadly officer-involved shooting: Carmel releases bodycam video, 911 call audio
In 2018, an Austin police officer’s camera was knocked off in a tussle and a second stopped officer’s stopped recording as police were arresting 23-year-old Justin Grant outside a bar. A bystander video shows the Austin officers punching Grant in the head, but not what led up to the altercation. Police said Grant had reached for a knife but what led to the controversial arrest also wasn’t caught on the officers’ Axon brand camera, the same brand Carmel uses.
In Aurora, Colorado in 2019, three officers’ cameras were dislodged in a high profile case in which emergency responders injected a man with a sedative. He went into cardiac arrest during the ambulance ride and died. That department was relying on cameras from Vievu, which was acquired by Axon in 2018.
And in Sacramento in 2018, an officer’s Axon body camera fell off when he was trying to detain a suspect before police said the suspect took the officers gun and tried to kill him.
Carmel police have allowed its officers to choose two camera mounts from a variety of Axon options, including the magnetic option that Officer VanNatter was using in July.
The majority of mounts Carmel officers have chosen are magnetic, and 92 of the 268 mounts handed out to officers are the same type as VanNatter’s. There are limitations based on which uniform each officer wears.
Axon did not say how often its cameras fall off, but said that magnetic mounting options are “meant to break away by design,” so that suspects can’t pull officers using the cameras. Others require more force to break away.
“We are continually working with customers to improve upon our mounting options.” Danny Woodhull, an Axon spokesman, said in an email to IndyStar. “Although Axon products perform at the highest level in the industry, use-of-force incidents are dynamic and fluid in nature and all outcomes can be unpredictable.”
In Carmel, Officer James Grose told IndyStar that there have been “a few other occurrences” of the department’s officers’ body cameras falling off.
Carmel police are looking into different mounting options, but at least for right now, the department has no plans to change companies. It’s in year two of a five-year commitment with its body camera provider Axon.
The July shooting
Virula is suspected of killing his girlfriend, 28-year-old Taylor Cox, and also shooting her 66-year-old mother.
In the critical incident report released last week, Carmel Lt. James Semester said police received a 911 call shortly after 8 a.m. on July 27 from Cox’s mother, who reported that her daughter’s boyfriend was suicidal and armed with a gun outside of a house on River Rock Court.
Police said Virula shot Cox multiple times before shooting Cox’s mother twice, who then fled the area to get help.
A shooting occurred in the Spring Creek subdivision in Carmel, early Monday, July 27, 2020, leaving two people dead, including the suspect, and injuring another. (Photo: Jenna Watson/IndyStar)
Virula later shot Cox at close range as she lay on the ground wounded, killing her, police said.
Following the initial call, multiple neighbors reported they saw Virula hiding in tall grass near the retention pond.
Semester said VanNatter spotted Virula and chased him. That’s when his body camera fell to the ground.
According to Semester, VanNatter ordered Virula to drop the gun. Virula did not and VanNatter shot him. Both were moving at the time.
In the video, someone can be heard saying “drop the gun” in the distance followed by more than a dozen gunshots.
It hasn’t just been Axon cameras that are knocked off. For example, in the 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two officers’ Motorola brand cameras fell off.
Those cameras were worn externally too, like Axon’s. But, those that are embedded into an officer’s uniform may have other trade offs, said Jeremy Carter, the director of criminal justice and public safety at IUPUI.
“Every mounting option has pros/cons,” Carter said. “Cameras that zip into an officer’s vest are more stable, but limit viewsheds and audio quality as compared to external mounting options, whereas external mounts maximize functionality and quality outputs but are more susceptible to falling off.”
Some agencies, including those in Indianapolis, Lawrence and Noblesville, have opted to sign a contract with Utility for its BodyWorn cameras which feature a patented design in which cameras are in holsters fastened inside the officers’ uniforms.
Utility expects to outfit 35 agencies in Indiana alone by the close of this year.
Both the Noblesville and Lawrence Police Departments say they have not had any problem with their cameras falling off, and it was one of the primary reasons both departments chose the brand.
“The fact our camera is mounted within our uniform and not externally mounted, thereby subjected to being knocked off or dislodged, is extremely important to the Noblesville Police Department,” said Noblesville’s Assistant Chief Brad Arnold. “However, the numerous other technological advances of BodyWorn made it a clear choice for our body-worn camera solution.”
He said that since the city’s implementation of body cameras this June, the department has recorded over 12,600 videos without any body-worn cameras falling off or inaccurately recording a law enforcement interaction.
Likewise, Lawrence Police Chief David Hofmann said they’ve been happy with Utility. No chief wants to have to tell the media that the multi-million dollar system didn’t catch what it was supposed to and there is no video of a critical incident, he said.
“These videos are valuable evidence, and we cannot afford to lose valuable evidence because of an equipment failure,” Hofmann said.”To me the stakes are way too high to go with an exterior mounted camera.”
He clarified that each chief is making what they feel is the best decision for his or her officers, and every body camera has its limitations. For example, even Utility’s camera could be blocked by a seatbelt in a police cruiser. But he said his department has not experienced limited audio or poor video quality that Carter referenced..
Carmel’s plans for change
Grose told IndyStar that Carmel had tested cameras from six other vendors, including Utility, before choosing Axon.
In Carmel’s assessment of Utility in 2017, the department found that the position of the lens limited the field of view of the camera and at times the lens could be obstructed by the external vest fabric. Plus Grose said the the quality of the video was inferior to other other systems, along with other problems.
“Ultimately, Axon was selected for because it was an excellent product and provided the best experience during testing,” Grose said in an email. “The body-worn camera hardware produced high-quality video that easily transferred for storage and the interface to review and manage electronic evidence was very simple. It was also recognized that Axon retained a high rate of market share, indicating their commitment to the business of supplying equipment to law enforcement for many years to come.”
Grose said Carmel is reviewing its policy to potentially limit the types of mounts officers are allowed to wear and are testing some new options.
One new option is a reinforced magnet mount designed to pinch uniform fabric between the magnets to better secure the mount. The other one being evaluated is the Mini MOLLE Mount which would lock in place around fabric straps attached to uniforms. Grose said The MOLLE mount could only be removed if it was unlatched or the fabric straps were torn.
Lafayette Police Chief Patrick Flannely said his department uses a variety of Axon body cameras mounts, including MOLLE mounts. He doesn’t recall any MOLLE mounted camera every becoming dislodged, but he added that those types of mounts don’t work with every uniform.
Carmel could run into the same issue.
In general, Flannely is happy with Axon.
“We have had cases where they do get knocked off of the officer, or covered up by body parts, coats, and just body positioning in general, but is rare,” Flannely said. “I think it is important for communities to understand that every camera has limitations.”
Body cameras, he said, are just one piece of the investigative puzzle.
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.
Read or Share this story: https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/hamilton-county/carmel/2020/10/19/carmel-police-axon-body-camera-fell-off-critical-moment/5941701002/