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Questions abound after fatal shooting is captured by cops' own camera

A camera on the chest of an Oakland, Calif., police officer recorded the officer's fatal encounter with a suspect. The incident highlights the rising use of police chest-cams – and the legal and ethical questions surrounding them.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / October 4, 2011

Protests at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, Calif., followed the shooting of Oscar Grant by a police officer two years ago. The incident led Oakland police to begin wearing cameras clipped to their chest – an effort to increase accountability and guard against allegations of abuse.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File

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Los Angeles

A fatal shooting by police in Oakland, Calif., captured on video by a city-issued camera clipped to the officer’s chest, is bringing attention to the growing phenomenon of camera-wearing police in cities across the country.

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On Sept. 25, two Oakland police officers pulled over a car and the passenger of the car, who allegedly had a gun and drugs, fled on foot. Video footage from the officer's chest-mounted camera shows a struggle between one of the officers and the fleeing man – and the fatal shot fired from the officer's gun.

The fatal shooting is the first in the Bay Area – and the second nationally – to be captured on video by a practice that has grown to include about 1,100 of the 17,000 police agencies nationwide. The rise of camera-wearing police is the outgrowth of a trend that has grown since the 1991 Rodney King police-beating case: mounting video cameras in police cruisers both to protect officers against allegations of abuse and to promote police accountability.

But for all its benefits, the new technology also raises questions, ranging from how police departments can guard against tampering to whether the videos should ever become public. Experts say the Oakland incident, now under investigation, is an opportunity to bring legal and regulatory clarity to the practice.

“There are a lot of issues floating around about all of this,” says Robert Langran, a constitutional scholar at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “A lot will depend on the circumstances of each case, what the police want, what the victim’s family wants, whether charges are brought, and whether the case is civil or criminal. If charges are brought, a lot of this will get clarified, if not, much will remain iffy.”

The first police chest-cams were used in 2007, according to VIEVU, a Seattle company that manufactures them. Though only about 6 percent of police agencies use them, some observers say they could become as common as cruiser-mounted cameras in the years ahead.

For its part, Oakland adopted the wearable cameras after Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by police on New Year's Day in 2009, leading to protests, says John Burris, an Oakland attorney who specializes in police-misconduct cases. The shooting was caught on video by a bystander using a cellphone.

Advocates who want to see more accountability from their police departments are optimistic about the use of the cameras. “Chest-borne video cameras ... are giving us the objective accountability we have been striving for ever since Rodney King,” says Mary Powers, president of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago.

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