Audio delay in officer body cam footage part of technology

MILWAUKEE -- When a Milwaukee police officer shot and killed Sylville Smith on August 13, Police Chief Ed Flynn said body camera video showed the entire incident took about 25 seconds to unfold.

"I know that the video starts as the officer is still in the vehicle and then about 30 seconds later the audio kicks in," said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel in a news conference Monday.

He said the delay in audio has made things more challenging for investigators.

"There's a period at which there is no audio," he said. "That is difficult, it would be better to be able to hear."

According to the company that makes this technology, TASER International, when an officer is on shift, the cameras are always on and always recording, but it's up to the individual officer to save a recorded event.

"If there's no sound during the shooting, that means that was occurring before the camera was actually activated," said Steve Tuttle, Vice President of Strategic Communications for TASER.

Milwaukee Police use the Axon Flex model of body cameras. That particular model has to be double clicked to actually save a recorded event.

When an officer double clicks, the camera goes back and saves the previous 30 seconds, in case something important happened before the camera was activated, but that 30 seconds doesn't include audio. Once they double click, audio begins recording.

"Let's say I drive around in the city for an hour and I see someone run a red light, I double-click the event button, it captures that previous 30 seconds of video only and immediately begins to add audio going forward," said Tuttle.

The company says when the technology was first introduced, many police unions feared that officer and citizen privacy would be at risk if the cameras recorded and saved every single conversation. The 30-second audio delay was a compromise.

"This was a win-win for everyone," said Tuttle. "You still preserve the video evidence but protect some of that privacy that was occurring before an event occurred."

He says when officers double click the camera, they know for sure that audio is being recorded.

"The minute you push that button and double click it, that changes the police officer's mode," said Tuttle. "He goes into professional mode, watches what he says, makes sure his language is clear to the suspects or the contact he's having and again, that is there to grab full context of a situation."

Attorney General Brad Schimel said Monday that viewing the body camera footage in the Sylville Smith case will not answer all of the questions. He says it only gives a narrow and incomplete view of the entire incident, and should be viewed in context with all of the other pieces of the investigation.

Tuttle says an officer's first priority when wearing body cameras is safety. Cameras come second.

"The officer's duties are to turn the cameras on, but when public safety is a concern or something expeditiously occurs, they're going to do their job first," said Tuttle. "They're not there to be camera producers. When they can and try and get to that double click, that's great that ensures they capture it, but that's how the system is designed to work."

According to the Milwaukee Police Department's Standard Operating Procedure for body-worn cameras, members who arrive on a scene or engage in an enforcement contact "must start recording as soon as it is safe and practical to do so."

The policy also states that members will make every effort to activate their cameras for all investigative or enforcement contacts, including vehicle stops, impaired driving investigations, field interviews and pedestrian stops, transporting citizens or prisoners, searches of persons or property, dispatched calls for service, crime scenes, crash scenes, advising of Miranda warnings, suspect/witness statements and interviews, vehicle and foot pursuits and emergency response to critical incidents.

It's unclear at what point the officer involved in the Sylville Smith shooting activated his camera. Milwaukee Police said Monday that Chief Flynn was unavailable for comment. 

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