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A cop fires. A teen dies. Yet six police body cameras somehow miss what happens.

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 3/21/2017 Craig Timberg
Posing with her daughter Angela in their home in Los Lunas, N.M., Mary Alice Hawkes holds a portrait of her daughter Mary, a troubled 19-year-old who was fatally shot by an Albuquerque police officer in 2014. © Steven St. John/For The Washington Post Posing with her daughter Angela in their home in Los Lunas, N.M., Mary Alice Hawkes holds a portrait of her daughter Mary, a troubled 19-year-old who was fatally shot by an Albuquerque police officer in 2014.

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ALBUQUERQUE — The killing of Mary Hawkes, a troubled 19-year-old woman suspected of stealing a truck, should have been a case study on the value of police body cameras. The action was fast-moving, the decisions split-second. And all of the surviving witnesses — including the shooter himself — were police officers wearing small video cameras on their uniforms.

But nearly three years after the 2014 shooting, it instead has become a cautionary tale about the potential of new technology to obscure rather than illuminate, especially in situations when police control what is recorded and shown to the public. Federal investigators said in December that they were probing allegations that police tampered with video evidence in the case, underscoring broader questions about whether a nationwide rollout of body cameras is fulfilling promises of greater accountability.

“The video has become part of the story, as opposed to what it was perceived to be, as telling the story,” said Edward W. Harness, executive director of Albuquerque’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency.

The clearest look at Hawkes’s final moments could have come from the shooter himself, Officer Jeremy Dear. But his camera was not recording when he fired five shots at point-blank range, leaving Hawkes dying alongside a small handgun that Dear claimed she pointed at him just before he fired.

Videos from three other officers who converged on the scene also missed the first, crucial moments. Video from a fourth camera was oddly blurred. A fifth and a sixth turned up nothing at all.

In an image from a police body camera, Mary Hawkes is seen in the distance against a concrete wall after she was fatally shot by an Albuquerque police officer, who claimed that she pointed a small handgun at him just before he fired. © Albuquerque Police Department In an image from a police body camera, Mary Hawkes is seen in the distance against a concrete wall after she was fatally shot by an Albuquerque police officer, who claimed that she pointed a small handgun at him just before he fired. The mystery of how so many body cameras missed the incident deepened in November with the release of a sworn affidavit from a former Albuquerque police employee, Reynaldo Chavez, who was the custodian of public records, including video evidence, before being fired in 2015. He said it was routine for officials to delete, alter or refuse to release footage because of “political calculations.”

Chavez testified that three videos from the Hawkes case showed signs of alterations and a possible deletion. The allegations, which Albuquerque officials have publicly disputed, are central to a Justice Department’s investigation. He declined further comment through his attorney.

The controversy highlights the possibility that massive deployments of body cameras, now used by nearly every major department in the nation, may be used selectively to bolster police accounts of incidents without providing the transparency expected by reform advocates.

Battles have erupted in several cities over public access to body-camera video after police shootings. In January, a Charlotte judge ordered the release of footage of the killing of an 18-year-old man against the wishes of some of the officers involved.

A nationwide study by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington-based umbrella group, reported last year that dozens of major departments did not have policies necessary to ensure that video evidence is treated as a public resource rather than a tool serving the police.

“Just because a police department uses body cameras doesn’t mean they’ll be accountable and transparent,” said Harlan Yu of the technology policy research group Upturn, which worked on the study.

It included a scorecard on the body-camera policies of 50 departments. Among the worst scores was Albuquerque’s.

Signs of trouble

Mary Hawkes spent her early childhood in a home riven by alcoholism and abuse before being adopted by the Hawkes family in a quiet New Mexico community. But in her late teens, she gradually disappeared into an Albuquerque neighborhood known as “The War Zone,” a grim stretch of the once-fabled Route 66 lined by pawnshops, cheap motels and takeout joints.

Hawkes found time to get a high school equivalency degree and start community college, taking classes­ toward a possible career in welding, but there were signs of trouble.

“She started feeling her freedom and started doing things that weren’t really right,” said Deborah Pierson, who owned a facility where Hawkes once received therapy while tending and riding horses. The two grew close, Pierson said, but that relationship eventually frayed. “She completely pulled away.”

In the pre-dawn hours of April 21, 2014, police spotted Hawkes driving a stolen truck, according to official reports. The truck was later found abandoned, and police said they searched for Hawkes and eventually cornered her in a mobile home park. When they threatened to send in K-9 dogs, Hawkes fled across the street and into a carwash.

Two video cameras mounted there captured glimpses of the petite, dark-haired woman — weighing barely 100 pounds and dressed in black pants and a hoodie — as she dashed by. In a single frame from one of the cameras there appears to be something dark protruding from Hawkes’s right hand that could be a gun, but this much-scrutinized snippet is hard to decipher definitively.

Hawkes soon was sprinting up a sidewalk. That’s where she encountered Dear, who later told investigators that he yelled, “Stop, stop,” as he gave chase. Dear said he also tapped a button on his body camera to start recording.

As he closed in, Dear thought to himself, “I’m going to get her, I’m going to tackle her. I’m going to get her in custody and I’m going to finish this case,” he said in a statement to investigators two days after the shooting.

But instead, according to his statement, Hawkes slowed down, turned her body toward Dear and aimed a small metallic gun directly at him, while yelling, “Don’t, don’t.”

Dear said he took a step or two backward and, terrified that he was about to die, fired his 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson at Hawkes. He later told investigators, “I fired until she dropped and disappeared.”

Attorneys for her family, who has sued Dear and the police department for wrongful death, disputed allegations that Hawkes was armed and said she never pointed a gun at Dear.

They note the lack of fingerprints, DNA or other physical evidence tying Hawkes to the gun found near her body. And they question how Dear’s account of Hawkes slowing, turning and aiming a gun at him fits the physical evidence.

Dear fired five times: Two bullets stayed lodged in her body. A third passed through her body and struck a concrete wall immediately behind her. A fourth and a fifth missed Hawkes entirely, striking the wall without any obstruction, according to a forensics expert hired by the family.

The spread among the three resulting bullet marks, still visible today, is about 10 feet — a remarkably wide distance if Dear was firing from a standing position just a few feet from Hawkes. The forensics expert wrote in an affidavit that the conclusion “most consistent with the evidence” was that Hawkes was moving away from Dear as he opened fire.

“You don’t get to shoot people in the back as they’re running away from you,” said Laura Schauer Ives, one of the family’s attorneys.

When the family’s attorneys tried to question Dear about the case in a deposition, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 125 times.

Dear later filed a reply to the Hawkes family lawsuit denying its allegations of unjustified use of force and saying that he acted in a legal and “objectively reasonable” way.

The Albuquerque Police Department did not respond to several requests from The Washington Post for comment about the case. In court filings, the department has backed Dear’s account of the shooting, saying the “use of force was reasonable under the totality of circumstances.”

A court date was originally set for May in the lawsuit but has been delayed.

‘A relatively new technology’

As Hawkes lay bleeding on the sidewalk, Dear holstered his gun as other officers took control of the scene, handcuffing the unconscious woman. Sgt. Brian Maurer, Dear’s superior, told him to turn off his video camera so he wouldn’t, in the emotion of the moment, “say anything that he might regret later,” Maurer later testified in a deposition. He told the Hawkes family attorneys, “I believed everything from that point on was confidential.”

But Maurer needn’t have worried. Dear’s camera had not been on during the chase and shooting. He would later tell investigators that, despite trying to activate the device before drawing his gun, the cord attaching the camera to its power pack had pulled loose during the scramble.

Dear noticed the camera wasn’t on, he told investigators, immediately after holstering his gun and thought, “I’m going to get in trouble for this.”

The issue of when to activate body cameras had polarized the Albuquerque department in the years since it began experimenting with the devices in 2010. A 2016 report by outside researchers found that officers were uncertain about the rules and came to believe that every encounter with a civilian was supposed to be recorded, even as the actual policy shifted to give officers leeway in cases­ that were unlikely to lead to arrests or use of force.

Although officers appreciated the ability of video to quickly resolve groundless citizen complaints, police grumbled about activating de­vices during dangerous, fast-moving situations. They also worried about the privacy rights of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Similar issues have emerged nationwide.

“This is still a relatively new technology that’s suffering from growing pains,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington. There are debates, he said, over what gets recorded, how the resulting footage gets handled and who ultimately gets to view it — creating new dilemmas for departments.

Since Dear’s graduation from the police academy in 2008, he had numerous citizen complaints. He also often failed to activate his body camera and, according to department officials, had been ordered to record every contact with civilians — a directive that was more stringent than the policy applied to other officers. A review after the Hawkes shooting, the family’s attorneys said, showed he had failed to record civilian contact more than 200 times.

Dear was later fired for insubordination for this repeated failure to use his camera — not for the Hawkes shooting itself — but a personnel review board eventually ordered that he be reinstated. The case remains unresolved because of a court appeal.

One of Dear’s attorneys, Thomas Grover, himself a former Albuquerque police officer, disputes that Dear was ever ordered to record every civilian contact and also argues that the shooting was a “garden-variety use of force” overblown by the Hawkes family’s attorneys. (Another of Dear’s attorney, representing him in the civil suit by the Hawkes family, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Grover said the rollout of the body cameras in Albuquerque has been fraught with problems, including balky devices, poor battery life, misunderstandings over policy and a failure to manage public expectations of what the cameras could capture.

“If you could exemplify the problems with an emerging new technology, this is it,” Grover said. “There was no foresight.”

Ives, the Hawkes family attorney, is also critical of the department, which she contends has intentionally edited, deleted or disposed of key video evidence, undermining the possibility for a full public accounting of fatal shootings and other incidents.

“The camera issue is depressing in many ways,” Ives said. “Now we are coming to understand that these systems can be manipulated, and it can be easier to convince the public of whatever they [the police] want them to think because there’s a bit of video.”

The Justice Department, in a scathing review of the Albuquerque department’s training, policies and unusually high rate of fatal shootings, singled out its handling of body cameras as inadequate, aimed more at “placating public criticism” than addressing systemic failures.

That report, which later caused the city to sign a consent decree accepting four years of federal monitoring of its police, was released April 10, 2014.

Eleven days later, Hawkes was killed.

Request for police video

Hawkes’s parents, both of whom had worked in law enforcement, were initially reluctant to challenge official accounts of her death, especially given the recovery of a gun and reports that she pointed it at a police officer. The coroner’s report also suggested that Hawkes had taken methamphetamine in the hours before she was shot. A “high concentration” of the drug turned up in her blood.

The turning point came when Hawkes’s sister, Angela Hawkes, and her parents, Mary Alice and Danny Hawkes, visited the site of the shooting. There, they said, they examined the bullet marks that seemed oddly spread out for an exchange of gunfire in which both shooter and victim were supposedly facing each other from a few feet away.

“Anybody could see she was running away,” Mary Alice Hawkes said.

The family soon hired lawyers and began requesting police reports and videos.

The video that did emerge from the shooting raised more questions than it answered. One clip, from an officer who was speeding up to the scene in a patrol car, shows Dear standing with his gun pointed at Hawkes as she lay on the sidewalk. Faint flashes suggest that this clip captured some of the shots but not what caused Dear to fire.

That video also showed at least two other officers nearby. But useful footage did not turn up on either of their cameras.

The affidavit by Chavez, the department’s former custodian of public records, alleges that police officials had several ways to keep video they considered “problematic” away from the public. In one controversial case, Chavez said he heard a top official say of one camera’s memory card, “We can make this disappear.”

Chavez also said the department’s system for managing video, the widely used Evidence.com from Taser, offered the ability to edit or delete footage, though the system produced usage logs that could be audited later. Taser, a leading manufacturer of police body cameras and electroshock weapons, declined to comment for this report.

Although Chavez did not claim direct knowledge of what happened to video in the Hawkes case, he said in his affidavit that it appeared as though the blurred footage resulted from a function allowing changes­ to the resolution. A second video also showed signs of intentional blurring, and a third appeared to be missing as much as 20 seconds that, Chavez said, probably were deleted. He has publicly alleged that he was fired after registering concern that such tactics violated the law.

While the department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Post, it issued a statement to news organizations in November that said: “The city questions the motives and disputes the accuracy of the information relayed by Mr. Chavez. The city stands prepared to defend against these allegations that records or evidence have been compromised.”

Shaun Willoughby, the Albuquerque police union president, said none of the officers acted improperly. The expectations of what body cameras can show have outstripped the reality of the technology.

“I literally tell people, ‘Buy a drone,’ ” with a camera mounted on board, Willoughby said. “Let them follow every cop.”

But the family’s attorneys say the problem is an old-fashioned coverup using high-tech means.

In recent weeks, the attorneys for the family discovered yet another curious fact about the videos produced the morning of the shooting. Dear and a fellow officer both had videos taken by their body cameras between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., not long from when the police inquiry into the stolen truck was beginning.

When these videos were uploaded to the department’s computer system, they did not include an evidence ID number linking them to the Hawkes investigation, which meant they weren’t initially turned over to the family when their attorneys requested the relevant records.

Audit logs showed that both Dear and the other officer viewed these videos nine days after the shooting, and then, nearly five months later, a senior police official deleted the footage through what the department has said was a routine purge.

But the number of curious developments with police video has frustrated the Hawkes family, who now say that body cameras may not be worth the trouble under current conditions.

“Not if they can pick and choose what they want. It’s pointless,” Mary Alice Hawkes said. “It’s just a facade for the public.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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