By Mark Ackerman and Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4) – In 2017, police in Colorado have fatally shot 19 people. Yet, only seven of those 19 fatalities were captured by body cameras.
Why aren’t we seeing more of these critical cases on camera?
The majority of the time it is because the officer involved wasn’t issued a body camera. But, in some cases, crucial incidents are missed because an officer or deputy fails to hit the record button.
That’s what happened in the case of Alejandro Gutierrez, who died after a fight with police officers last March. First, Thornton police officers, who are not equipped with body cameras, approached Gutierrez outside of a convenience store on Huron Street as they investigated a drug complaint.
According to police documents, Gutierrez ran away and then fought with multiple officers.
Then two Federal Heights officers arrived, wearing body cameras that remained off and shocked Gutierrez twice with a Taser. Gutierrez lost consciousness. Finally, body cameras were turned on as officers started CPR in attempt to revive him.
“They just forgot to turn them on, was their explanation,” said Adams County District Attorney Dave Young who investigated the case, but decided not to charge officers in the Gutierrez death.
LINK: Read The Decision
“It is unfortunate in this case that we don’t have the footage we could have had when they arrived on the scene,” he said. “It’s a problem with body cameras. They are only good if you turn them on.”
This wasn’t the first time the technology existed, but wasn’t deployed properly.
A Kit Carson County Sheriff’s Deputy was not wearing his department-issued body camera when he shot and wounded a 16-year-old boy who aimed a BB gun at him seven months ago. The deputy had come from a court hearing and hadn’t had time to put the camera on yet. However, in this case there was still tape: surveillance video clearly showed the teenager leaving a convenience store and pointing the weapon at the deputy. Despite the lack of body camera footage, it was clear the shooting was justified.
According to CBS4’s body-camera questionnaire, fewer than 20 percent of agencies with body cameras have issued any punishments for failure to activate the technology. Of the departments that did, punishments ranged from verbal counseling to suspensions.
In Southern Colorado, 17-year-old Patrick O’Grady was shot while naked in the upstairs bathroom of his home in 2015. Fountain police officer Jonathan Kay claims O’Grady pointed a gun at him, then Kay opened fire. Kay did not turn on his body camera until after the shooting.
“Do I wish the video was on? Absolutely,” said Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer who said officer Kay made an honest mistake and thought he pressed the button activating his camera.
Now the officer and the town of Fountain are co-defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit.
“Since that incident we’ve changed our policy,” said Heberer. “As soon as you are dispatched to a call you go ahead and initiate your camera. That takes out some of the stress of the situation.”
A new generation of body camera technology is helping make sure officers don’t miss crucial moments. The Douglas County Sheriff, along with the Fort Collins, Castle Rock and Colorado Springs police departments have invested in technology that “automatically” activates body cameras, instead of relying on a police officer to remember to manually turn on the camera.
Sgt. Sam Varella with the Castle Rock police department demonstrated the technology for CBS4. The automatic activation technology turns on every police body camera nearby when the police car’s light bar turns on, a gun rack is opened or a Taser is deployed.
“We didn’t want to draw their focus from what’s important,” Varella said. “It gives them one less thing to think about,” because, in an instant, a routine traffic stop can become dangerous.
Last May, Douglas County deputy sheriff Bradley Proulx stopped to assist a motorist pulled over on the side of the road. As soon as Proulx exited his vehicle, a rifle wielding man was outside of his vehicle and attacked him. Proulx shot and injured him. Proulx’s body camera was on and working, but moving forward, the Sheriff’s office decided body cams will automatically turn on when the light bar is activated, even on a routine stop.
Currently, 22 of Colorado’s 63 sheriff’s offices have body cameras. Four more sheriffs plan to deploy body cameras by the end of 2017.
54 out of 109 Colorado police departments invested in body-worn cameras
Mark Ackerman is a Special Projects Producer at CBS4. Follow him on Twitter @ackermanmark
CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.