LOS ANGELES — As Fullerton police Officer Manuel Ramos approached a homeless man at a bus stop in July, he did what members of his department have been doing for a decade. He clicked on an audio recorder normally used to capture witness statements and exonerate officers accused of misconduct.
But prosecutors say the recorder captured something entirely different: the officer murdering a defenseless man suffering from schizophrenia.
Police agencies across the country are increasingly using audio and video devices to collect evidence, and they played a crucial role in prosecutors bringing murder charges this week against Ramos and an involuntary manslaughter count against a colleague, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli.
The violent encounter with Kelly Thomas was captured on surveillance video, but prosecutors say it was only when they paired the images with police audio that they understood what they were seeing. They said Thomas was pummeled, shocked with a Taser, beaten with a stun gun and taunted by Ramos as he stood over the victim and declared: "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to F you up."
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called that statement — and the fact it was recorded — a turning point.
"This encounter had changed from a fairly routine police detention into an impending beating at the hands of an angry police officer," Rackauckas said. "Ramos instilled in the victim a reasonable fear that his life was in danger."
Fullerton uses a device sold by Riverside-based Versatile Information Products Inc., which contracts with electronics-maker Olympus to customize standard digital voice recorders.
At the end of each shift, officers transfer files onto a server that backs them up as long as needed. The devices, used by hundreds of police agencies, do not let officers edit files, and they show if anything has been deleted.
Device salesman Stephen Gaskins said the units cost about $300 a piece, with the software to back up the files available separately.
"Expensive, but not as daunting as what lawsuits cost," Gaskins said, referring to the frequency the devices provide evidence to exonerate officers wrongly accused of misconduct.
About 700 other police departments across the country have gone a step further, equipping officers with tiny body cameras to record interactions.
In Oakland, where the department is under federal supervision following a case where four officers were caught planting drugs on suspects, police supervisors view the cameras as a useful extra check on officers.
The Los Angeles Police Department is spending $20 million to install video and audio systems in its squad cars. Officers will be wirelessly miked and a computer starts recording every time the emergency lights are activated.
Even before Fullerton police started using audio recorders, the department employed dashboard video cameras and microphones, but these proved unreliable, Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said. Recorders are now standard issue and officers are taught to switch them on every time they interact with a member of the public.
"In just about every investigation that goes to court, one of the common requests is that (prosecutors) want the (audio)," Goodrich said.
In Los Angeles, after some initial concerns private conversations between officers would be recorded, the police officer’s union has embraced the technology.
"In the vast majority of cases, the public is going to see the police officers being very restrained and very professional, and that’s a positive," Los Angeles Police Protective League president Paul Weber said.
Another piece of high-tech evidence came from Cicinelli’s Taser. By downloading information on the weapon, investigators determined he used it three times in "drive stun" mode, pushing the device directly into Thomas. Then he used it a fourth time, firing darts from weapon and shocking Thomas for about 12 seconds.
Cicinelli then allegedly smashed Thomas about the face with the Taser. Cicinelli’s attorney Bill Hadden said he had not received any discovery in the case but claimed prosecutors had gotten a lot of facts wrong. He said he would be making a fuller response in the coming weeks.
Ramos’s attorney, John Barnett, has disputed prosecutors’ account of the confrontation with Thomas. He says when his client made the threat about his fists, he was using a subtle type of force to get a suspect to comply. Ramos was responding to a transit hub in the suburban college town after someone reported seeing a homeless man breaking into cars.
In all, six officers were at the scene but the other four were not expected to be charged. Cicinelli’s device and that of one other officer were not activated, though police say it’s not unusual for an officer to forget to switch on the mechanism if they are responding to an unfolding emergency.
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