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Boise Police Body Cams: How Footage is Changing Probes Into - and Outcomes of - Police Shootings

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In the body camera footage, a K9 police dog—a German shepherd—looked on expectantly as Boise Police Department Officer Chris Wirshing hollered at a man hidden in some nearby bushes, commanding him to show his hands to the surrounding officers.

"There's something in his hands—something in his hands!" Wirshing shouted. Shots crackled and the German shepherd danced on its leash as Wirshing drew his gun and fired several rounds.

The incident started at approximately 8:15 a.m. on March 18, when Boise Police officers received a report that a man had displayed a handgun to a woman while chastising her about her off-leash dog in the Hulls Gulch section of the Boise Foothills. Police were at first unable to contact the man, but another report came in nearly an hour and a half later—this time of a man shooting a dog named Moses and pointing his gun at the dog's owner. Based on a description of the suspect, police officers discovered him hiding in a cluster of shrubs. The man audibly refused commands to submit to arrest and adopted a shooting posture. A firefight ensued, leaving the suspect, Benjamin Barnes, fatally wounded.

Since BPD rolled out body cameras in June 2016, they have played an important role as evidence in criminal inquiries. Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas, who served as special prosecutor in the Hulls Gulch shooting, said body camera footage was a key piece of evidence in determining the "legal force in reaction to a deadly threat" posed by Barnes. Thomas' findings were released to the public Sept. 22.

"The body cam was one of the best things we had," he said. "Those really helped in terms of identifying what the officers were doing and what they were saying at the time, and the types of responses that were going on."

In addition to other evidence like police reports and 911 calls, Thomas relied on footage to verify witness accounts and stitch together a timeline of the incident. It gave him a trail of evidence that began with a buildup of danger to the public and ended with Barnes refusing to come out of the bushes.

"He started shooting, and we knew he was armed from other people and the shots fired on the dog—[officers] are going into this amped up knowing they may encounter this," Thomas said. "It made it a little less difficult to make the determination [not to charge officers in the shooting]."

According to Boise Police Chief Bill Bones, body cams help train officers, act as a source of criminal evidence and ease the resolution of internal complaints. The footage generated of police shootings has so far offered insight into how well officers follow policy, and how and when to use "tactical approaches" versus de-escalation techniques.

As a training tool, video also gives BPD officers examples of real-world scenarios experienced by their colleagues in the communities they serve. Though the Hulls Gulch shooting ended in the death of a man, footage of it will yield valuable information about how officers can protect the public and possibly reduce the likelihood of bloodshed in similar situations.

"[That includes] everything from locating the subject to how [officers] approach somebody once they've been shot, and how we give them care at that point," Bones said.

Transparency has been part of how BPD envisions its use of body cameras from the beginning, and video has already been used to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Bones said he has shared video with members of the public who made allegations, saying "it creates a sense of accountability in a community, for citizens to know officers have those body cameras on [and] that officers themselves are holding to that standard of transparency."

Not everyone agrees with how BPD has gone about achieving openness with the public. When the department announced Thomas had cleared officers of wrongdoing after the Hulls Gulch shooting, BPD released a cut of the incident—pulled from dozens of hours of footage—for television and online media use. Bones said it was a courtesy for news media, but ACLU-Idaho Executive Director Leo Morales said he is mistrustful of police departments offering pre-packaged body camera footage.

"The ACLU definitely has issues with [the] government releasing certain edited video," he said. "If the government is going to release video, it should release the incident in its entirety."

In the media-friendly video released by BPD and broadcast on several newscasts, officers can be heard coordinating their movements, and seen surrounding Barnes' position and exchanging fire with him. Barnes is out of sight, obscured by bushes. Much of the rest of the video is available through a public records request, but it would entail a lengthy and expensive review by an attorney before it could be released, and contain violent or disturbing images. Bones said BPD isn't hiding anything with the media cut, and will likely do it again in the event of future critical incidents.

"We want to provide [video footage] to the public regardless of what light it shows us in," he said. "We're just trying to make that a little bit easier so the press doesn't have to jump through so many hoops."


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