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Editorial: Body cameras must be on when needed

What happened in Minneapolis is what many observers feared once police were required to wear body cameras: At a critical moment, the cameras were never turned on. An officer fatally shot a woman who had called police for help. His body camera and his partner’s, for reasons that remain unexplained, were inactive.

It’s not the first time this has happened. In Chicago and Los Angeles, cameras were off when fatal police shootings occurred. The question – now asked by Minneapolis’ mayor, among others – is why?

“Why don’t we have footage from body cameras?” Betsy Hodges demanded at a news conference Tuesday. They mayor, described by the New York Times as visibly frustrated, continued: “Why were they not activated? We all want answers to those questions.”

The body cameras of Officers Mohamed Noor and Matthew Harrity were not turned on when they answered a 911 call made by Justine Damond, a 40-year-old immigrant from Australia and meditation teacher. Both officers may have violated department policy by not turning on their cameras. Noor declined to be interviewed by investigators.

Harrity, though, said that in responding to Damond’s call about a possible assault near her home, he had been surprised by a loud noise near the squad car, which he was driving. At that moment, Damond approached his open window, he said, and Noor fired through it, fatally shooting the woman in her abdomen.

It is premature to speculate why the cameras were not switched on, though the cameras have been controversial in Minneapolis. What is obvious, though, is that the failure to follow policy inevitably raises suspicions: It looks like the officers didn’t want their actions recorded. Why?

It is entirely possible, and perhaps likely, that this was nothing more than a tragic accident. If so, the cameras might have documented that. Instead, a cloud hangs over the shooting, raising questions that could easily have been avoided.

This is important as Buffalo prepares a test run on body cameras and other area municipalities continue using the technology. Clear policies need not only to be established, but enforced. Taxpayers are putting up valuable dollars to obtain the unquestionable benefit of body cameras. Compliance needs to be audited and, especially in the case of a disputed use of force, failure to comply must carry consequences.

Some officers may resent the requirement to wear body cameras or to use dashboard cameras. But for those who diligently perform their critical duties, the recordings are far more likely to work to their benefit than their disadvantage. No one knows why Noor and Harrity had their cameras off, but it will be important to find that out.

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