For ten months we have been asking questions about the Terrence Sterling shooting. There’s a federal investigation, a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit, protests, and outrage over the headline: An unarmed black man shot and killed by police.
But this story never got the attention like the other police-related cases nationwide. Finally, nine months after Sterling was killed, his family broke their silence. Sterling's mom, dad and sister were demanding answers.
WUSA9 ordered the Axon Body 2. It is the same model of body-worn camera issued to all Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers working the streets of DC. There are 2,600 cameras total.
Officer Brian Trainer had one too. He's the 27-year-old officer who shot and killed Sterling, September 11, 2016, around 4:30 a.m. at the intersection of 3rd and M Streets, NW.
On that early morning, Sterling was riding a motorcycle. Officer Trainer was in a cruiser that cut off the bike. Sterling hit Trainer's passenger side door. Officer Trainer was sitting in that passenger seat. The officer opened fire, shooting 31-year-old Terrence Sterling twice - in the neck and the back.
Police released Officer Trainer’s body cam video, but it doesn’t tell the whole story because the officer did not turn it on until after the shooting.
“You truly go into that 'fight or flight, 30 second' and police officers are trained to fight,” said Sergeant Matthew Mahl, Chairman of the DC Police Union. "They don't remember their camera. It’s one of those things. [Other officers may say] 'I didn't think about my camera at all. I just saw a threat and knew it had to stop.'"
According to MPD Policy, officers should press a two-inch event button in the center of their body camera. That means the camera is on and rolling. But manufacturers built in a safety me30-second pre-roll. Essentially, the camera is always in buffer mode or recording in a loop so when an officer hits record, the previous 30 seconds is automatically saved though it doesn’t have sound.
But that still didn't help in the Terrence Sterling case, because Officer Trainer failed to double tap, or turn on, his body cam right away. So even with the 30 second pre-roll, we only see the aftermath.
Even witnesses who drove up to the scene recorded cell phone video after the shooting. The footage shows officers tried to save Sterling's life.
There are a lot of questions, but one thing is certain: Brian Trainer violated police policy. But we had some more questions.
It’s policy but is it second nature or even reasonable to expect an officer to turn on his camera when faced with a perceived threat?
“We were trained one way in the Academy and now you've introduced this audible in the middle of the play,” explained Sgt. Mahl. “It’s hard to deal with that change and remember that's what you're supposed to do. It’s truly muscle memory. It’s a training issue."
Officers failing to turn on their body cam in time, or even at all, is such a big problem nationwide that the manufactures made some changes to help get around it. One MPD unit has already implemented the changes. The 30 second pre-roll is now 60 seconds and MPD plans to go up to 120 seconds once that’s available.
Could a two-minute buffer have captured the moment Officer Trainer fired his gun?
Or better yet, would it have showed us what led up to the shooting? Did Brian Trainer, a police officer for just four years, forget his own police policy in the seconds between Sterling's motorcycle hitting his passenger side door and the moment he reached for his gun?
Police say Sterling intentionally rammed his motorcycle into the cruiser. Witnesses say it looked like an accident and that Sterling sideswiped the cruiser after it cut him off at the intersection.
“You've got a split second to realize, is it a deadly threat right now? Do you need your firearm?” Sgt. Mahl said. “You're not thinking about activating your body camera at this point."
There are even sensors now that turn on the body cams automatically including one attached to a gun’s holster. The Axon Signal Sidearm is not even on the market (it will be available later this year). But we got a first look at this new technology. As soon as an officer draws his weapon, a sensor in the holder triggers the body cam and a Bluetooth signal beams out for 30 seconds, turning on body cams in a thirty foot radius.
“I think that stops your muscle memory excuse, because we now have a camera that was activated because you drew your weapon and we're going to be able to see that entire event from the time the officer drew his firearm,” said Sgt. Mahl.
But the reality is in Sterling's case, those body cam upgrades weren't in play.
We don't have the video that would answer the Sterling family's biggest question –Why was Sterling shot to death?
According to witnesses, Officer Trainer rolled down his window and fired twice from inside the police cruiser. Police deny that, but don't explain where the officer was when the shots were fired.
In fact, we don't know a whole lot about the four-year cop who grew up in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, graduated the police academy in December of 2012 and earned the firearms training award.
Officer Trainer has been on paid leave since the September shooting. He’s under investigation by the MPD and the US Attorney's office. He’s also being sued by the Sterling family.
“I think the public trusts us but there are those instances when there isn't any camera footage of an event and it makes you wonder what really happened,” said Sgt. Mahl. “I do think that casts a shadow of doubt in people's mind...'Why isn't there video? Are you hiding something?'"
Since the shooting, MPD has made some changes to its policy including requiring officers to confirm with dispatch that their body cams are rolling when they are approaching a scene.
MPD has extended the pre-roll on the body cams from 30 seconds to 60. The Department plans to increase that to 2 minutes when the software becomes available.
Veteran officers now receive more training on body cams and police recruits are immediately assigned a body cam and wear it daily during training.