A fatal police shooting and no video? Raleigh’s chief also got that question in 2017.

Two years ago Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown was asked what would happen if a police officer shot someone and the officer’s body camera was turned off?

“We have an auditing process in place to make sure the devices are working properly and that the officers are following policy,” she said, according to The News & Observer’s coverage of the 2017 meeting.

“If there are policies and rules in place, they must be followed,” she said.

Now city leaders and civil-rights organizations are asking why a Raleigh police officer’s body camera wasn’t activated when he fatally shot a man accused of stealing a cell phone and brandishing a folding knife Saturday night, April 20.

“Raleigh’s elected officials must compel RPD to implement better training for de-escalation and dealing w/ people experiencing a mental health crisis, an improved body camera policy & consequences for when officers violate RPD policy & wrongfully use deadly force,” the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union tweeted Thursday.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT) executive director Rolanda Byrd renewed the organization’s call for a police oversight board with subpoena power and body cameras that automatically turn on when an officer’s weapon is drawn. Byrd’s son, Akiel Denkins, was shot and killed by a Raleigh police officer in 2016.

In a white T-shirt that read “Too many police. Not enough justice,” she said Raleigh may never know the truth about the shooting of 30-year-old Soheil Antonio Mojarrad.

“This is unacceptable,” she said. “Trust requires transparency and accountability in officer-involved fatalities. For this reason we are asking the city to change this policy so that officers are required to use body cameras in every interaction.”

Body camera policy

The Police Department’s written policies say body-worn cameras “shall be activated to record as soon as feasible during all contacts involving actual or potential violations of the law.”

Raleigh Police Senior Officer W. B. Edwards was wearing a body camera when he arrived at the Sheetz gas station at 5200 New Bern Ave. April 10 to fill up his patrol car. A Sheetz clerk and a customer approached him and said they’d just called 911 to report a man had taken a customer’s cell phone.

Edwards began searching for the suspect and saw Mojarrad, who matched the description. In the police chief’s report to the city manager, she said Mojarrad had raised a folding knife and was “crouched in an aggressive stance” after Edwards approached him.

“Mr. Mojarrad repeatedly advanced towards Officer Edwards, despite numerous commands to stop and drop the knife,” the report said. “Each time he advanced, Officer Edwards fired his service weapon at him, while ordering him to stop. Mr. Mojarrad eventually fell to the ground, with the knife still in his right hand.”

A lawyer for Mojarrad’s family has said “the majority of the eight gunshots that hit Soheil did not enter through the front of his body.”

The police report said Edwards did not activate his body-worn camera and his vehicle, which had a dash camera, was not facing the scene of the shooting.

The News & Observer asked how officers are trained to use their body-worn camera and was referred to the policy. The 14-page policy can be found on the city’s website at www.raleighnc.gov/police under the written directives tab.

Officers activate Raleigh’s body cameras by clicking a button at the bottom of the camera one time.

There are body cameras that turn on automatically when an officer draws a weapon from his or her holster, but that feature is not supported by WatchGuard, maker’s of Raleigh cameras, according to Raleigh police spokeswoman Donna-marie Harris. She also cited “privacy, storage and cost considerations” as to why the cameras are not on all the time.

The Raleigh Police Department began using body-worn cameras May 1, 2018. There are 400 cameras currently available and 480 officers, all at the rank of sergeant and below, who are trained to use and wear them, Harris said.

The department plans to buy more than 200 cameras in the coming months, she said.

Raleigh leaders first approved the request for body cameras in March 2016, The N&O reported. The department spent more than a year researching best practices for the devices and communicating to the public about the devices.

The City Council voted in January 2018 to spend $4.74 million over three years for the cameras.

Community reaction

Several community and civil-rights groups and some council members have spoken out since the police chief’s five-day report.

“The official five-day report leaves many questions unanswered and additional investigations are ongoing,” said council member Stef Mendell in a Facebook post. “The entire incident is very disturbing.”

There have been too many violent encounters between police and residents, council member David Cox said on his website.

“To protect citizens and police we need to review our procedures to ensure that body worn cameras are activated and to examine how we respond to situations that too often quickly become violent,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch also tweeted he wanted to work with his council members to review the body camera policy.

Saige Martin, who is running for the council, tweeted the city needs a “community oversight board” with subpoena power.

“We need body cams that auto record; and we need leaders in our city council who will work with partners to find innovative ways to treat and care for those with mental health conditions,” he said.

Raleigh PACT has repeatedly asked the City Council for a police oversight board that can require testimony from police and others. Raleigh leaders would have to request a local bill through the North Carolina General Assembly to create the task force. City staff is reviewing best practices for similar boards and will make a presentation to the council in May..

Such boards rarely include members of law enforcement, said Rick Armstrong, vice president of Teamsters Local 391 and former Raleigh police officer. People who have not worked in law enforcement lack the expertise needed to investigate officers, he said.

“I think the five-day report reinforces the position we have and we have taken,” Armstrong said. “He did everything proper and followed proper protocols, and it was a justified shooting.”

The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting an investigation, which is standard procedure in police shootings. The SBI will submit its findings to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

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