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Missing body camera footage would be crucial

Police officers involved in the shooting death of a Niles man will not be charged criminally on the state level, according to Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and a Trumbull County grand jury that heard the case.

In a 35-page report released in recent days, Watkins agrees with a grand jury that two Niles officers who fatally fired upon Matthew Burroughs near his Royal Mall apartment Jan. 2 felt Burroughs’ actions threatened the safety of officer Christopher Mannella.

Mannella fired three shots through the front windshield at Burroughs, 35, striking and killing the motorist.

Some of the best evidence in the case are the body camera videos from officers, the report states.

That statement is what is so troubling to us.

That’s because evidence from the body camera videos is incomplete since two of the responding officers failed to activate their body cameras in time to capture the situation on video.

That lack of good video footage exhibiting the turn of events, the point in which officers say they feared for their own personal safety, only triggers more questions and suspicions among the public.

Even in the midst of a tragic shooting, video footage would be viewed as a good thing because it could assist in providing answers and ultimately closure.

Instead, the public is right to be outraged.

In fact, there is no body-camera video showing the moments before Officer Mannella fired at Burroughs.

An internal affairs memo from Niles Capt. Tony Johnson indicates at least two officers, including Mannella, had not activated their body cameras at the time of the shooting.

The Ohio Attorney General’s office also indicated no other usable surveillance video from the apartment complex was available because the camera closest to the shooting, sadly, did not work.

A video released by Watkins shows the body camera worn by Niles officer James Reppy as he chased Burroughs’ car into the apartment complex. But by the time his camera catches a glimpse of Mannella in the frame, Mannella has already fired one of his three shots.

The sound of two more shots is heard as Reppy steadied himself on his cruiser and fired five times at the back of Burroughs’ Ford Fusion. None of his shots hit Burroughs.

Reppy had followed the department’s Body Worn Camera policy that requires officers to “record all contacts with citizens in the performance of their official duties.”

A third officer, Paul Hogan, also did not activate his body camera.

Mannella and Hogan rightfully received a written reprimand and refresher training from a captain with the Niles department on the Body Worn Camera policy.

Additional video may have helped lend credence to the police officers’ accounts and assisted in relaying the details to the public and to Matthew Burroughs’ family.

Certainly, the lack of the body camera footage is contributing to public demand for further explanation. It could also lead some to call for a requirement that body cameras be turned on during a police officer’s entire shift.

Others might argue such a requirement would not be logistically possible, nor would it be prudent for several reasons.

We know officers, like everyone, take personal phone calls that would be recorded; they take lunch and coffee breaks, considered their own free time.

Their duties also require them to view portable computer screens accessing restricted information about motorists, suspects, victims and others that, by law, are considered confidential. Still, that data would be visible by body camera video.

There also is the challenge of storing such large quantities of data created by recording every single officer, every single day. The data would be considered an Ohio public record that may not be disposed of.

Still, if officers fear they might be unable — in the heat of a dangerous incident like the one that occurred Jan. 2 at Royal Mall Apartments — to turn even split-second focus away from a situation to activate their body cameras, then maybe it is time to visit the possibility of leaving the body cameras running all the time.

Cameras, after all, underscore the value of continued transparency on the part of public officials and police officers. This incident drives home the need for statewide deployment of the technology to every law enforcement officer.

State legislators and local police supervisors must ensure that the cameras are being used at all times and being used properly.