WATCH: Lakeland PD Officers’ Use of Force Raises Question of Body Cameras

LAKELAND, Florida — When two Lakeland Police officers violently engaged a suspect under a bridge last week, passersby happened to capture video of the encounter on their phones.

The two video segments, totaling 41 seconds, were soon posted to the internet and widely viewed. The resulting controversy brought some harsh criticism for the Lakeland Police Department.

In response, LPD officials said it was unfair to judge the officers’ behavior on the basis of such short video segments, which didn’t capture the interactions that led to the rough arrest of Justin Abbott on April 10.

That explanation prompts a question: Would the public reaction have been different if the two officers had been wearing body cameras and the entire episode had been recorded?

Many law enforcement agencies across the country in recent years have faced the question of whether to adopt recording technology in the interests of transparency. The prevalence of phones with video capabilities has yielded footage of contentious and sometimes deadly encounters between police and citizens, and some agencies have chosen to install cameras in vehicles or employ small cameras worn on officers’ bodies.

“Digital technology is changing public expectations of law enforcement, both in terms of how they behave and what evidence they preserve during their interactions with the public, and nowhere is that more evident than in use-of-force cases,” said Norm Pattis, a Connecticut lawyer who advised the New Haven Police Department before it introduced body cameras last year.

Pattis said he thinks other departments should follow New Haven’s lead.

“Police officers have a monopoly on the use of deadly force and are trained to use pain compliance techniques as a way to ensure compliance with their orders,” Pattis said. “They routinely in years past would justify any application of force by saying it was necessary. These videos let the public make their own evaluation.”

A study of body-worn cameras conducted by the police department of Rialto, California, found that use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints against officers declined by 50 and 90 percent, respectively. The Journal of Quantitative Criminology published a summary of the study in 2015.

The Lakeland Police Department employs dash cameras in its vehicles, but neither LPD nor any other law enforcement agencies in Polk County use body cameras. That doesn’t seem likely to change in the aftermath of last week’s incident, which gained national attention and prompted criticism of LPD on social media.

Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said he hadn’t heard directly from any citizens suggesting that LPD outfit its officers with body cameras in response to the episode. But he said that’s a request the city sometimes fields.

“This issue comes up on a regular basis,” Delgado said. “I think there’s always some faction or organization or community group that asks about it, so it comes up from time to time. We continue to evaluate it, but there are definitely some aspects of it that we have to take into consideration, such as the costs associated with it.”

In an interview Tuesday, LPD Chief Larry Giddens expressed little enthusiasm for using body cameras. He pointed to the cost and the challenge of managing video records as negative factors.

“I think that we’re very transparent and I think we have policies and procedures in place to make sure our officers conduct themselves in a professional manner, which they do on a daily basis,” Giddens said.

LPD investigated the April 10 incident and ruled that the officers’ use of force was justified under the circumstances.

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