Two days after announcing a state trooper would not face charges for shooting and killing a Black man, the Maricopa County attorney is asking lawmakers to mandate body-worn cameras for all uniformed officers in the field.
County Attorney Allister Adel sent letters on Wednesday to six lawmakers asking for the leadership at the Arizona Legislature to come together to take action during the next session.
Senate President Karen Fann, Majority Leader Rick Gray and Minority Leader David Bradley, and House Speaker Rusty Brown, Majority Leader Warren Petersen and Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez were sent identical letters. Gov. Doug Ducey also received a copy.
Adel told The Arizona Republic she has had conversations about the need for bodycams since she was appointed in October.
The Board of Supervisors appointed Adel to the job after Bill Montgomery was named to the Arizona Supreme Court. Adel, a Republican, is now running for a full term.
“Anytime that we have more evidence in a case is helpful,” she said, calling the lack of bodycams a “matter of public concern.”
Adel said she felt now was the time to ask leaders to take action.
On Monday, Adel announced that Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper George Cervantes would not face charges for shooting and killing Dion Johnson, 28, on Memorial Day on Loop 101 near Tatum Boulevard.
The trooper was not wearing a body camera because DPS troopers have not been equipped with them.
Johnson’s death came the same day George Floyd was killed by an officer in Minneapolis. Their deaths led to weeks of protests in the Phoenix area with marchers demanding equal treatment for people of color.
“The system failed me, it failed my son and it fails us Black people,” Erma Johnson, the mother of Dion Johnson, said on Monday.
Idea has sputtered at state Capitol
State Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, sponsored legislation in 2015 that would require every peace officer in the state to wear a body camera. The bill never got a vote, and Bolding has continued to call for a mandate that officers wear body cameras.
In his State of the State address this year, Ducey called for equipping every Department of Public Safety trooper with a camera. Ducey offered the idea as protecting officers and proposed dedicating $5 million to buy about 1,200 cameras and pay for staff to manage the hours of new footage.
Adel said she supported that proposal.
The Legislature dropped the idea, however, as it hurried to pass a simpler budget amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying fiscal uncertainty.
Still, bipartisan interest in body cameras suggests a statewide mandate could gain political traction in the future.
But if body-worn cameras are meant as a means of ensuring more transparency and accountability in law enforcement, some lawmakers are calling for additional steps amid heightened scrutiny of the police.
“That is low-hanging fruit. That is at a minimum what I would expect from anyone who wants to be the Maricopa County attorney,” said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, a Democrat from Phoenix and member of the House Judiciary Committee. “Is there going to be real engagement in terms of rethinking how police are held accountable in Arizona and how their conduct is tracked in our state?”
Why bodycams? ‘More information is always better’
Adel spelled out her position in identical letters to the legislative leaders.
“While evidence and testimony in this case did not warrant criminal charges against the trooper, I write to you today because neither the trooper who shot Mr. Johnson, nor the back-up trooper who arrived on scene were equipped with body-worn cameras.
“As County Attorney for the third largest prosecutorial agency in the country, I believe this is a matter of public concern.
“I fully support the mandated use of body-worn cameras for all uniformed officers in the field throughout the state. While there are cost challenges associated with deploying body-worn cameras widely, these are challenges that must be addressed.
“When trying to determine what happens after an event like the one that ended in the death of Mr. Johnson, more information is always better. It is better for prosecutors.
“Better for the public, and, better for anyone who is committed to keeping our community safe.
“Given the importance of these types of events where life and death decisions are made, having this additional information for those of us who must sit in judgement of someone’s actions, is good public policy.”
Footage from body-worn cameras can be used in court by prosecutors and defense attorneys and provides additional information about a case.
“It is a useful tool that we can break down frame by frame and see a little bit more than ‘she said, he said,'” Adel said in an interview.
She called having body cameras a “commitment to transparency.”
Dion Johnson’s death not recorded
The county attorney’s decision not to criminally charge Cervantes has been controversial.
With no body-camera video to fully detail what happened, questions remain about the fatal shooting.
Adel said eyewitnesses to the encounter described a struggle between the trooper and the man in the car along the freeway.
Cervantes was not wearing a body camera during the encounter because DPS is the largest agency in the state that doesn’t equip its officers with the technology.
Adel said she couldn’t say if a body camera would have made a difference in the events surrounding Johnson’s death. The charging decision was based on the evidence and facts available at the time, she said.
Jocquese Blackwell, the lawyer for the Johnson family, called the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office review of the case a “one-sided story.” He said with so many questions left unanswered, the outcome of the case should be determined by a jury in court.
In a video obtained by The Republic on Wednesday, troopers are seen surrounding the fallen Johnson, but the ambulance does not approach until almost six minutes have passed.
Adel said the Phoenix police and fire departments should answer questions about any delay of the ambulance.
“But I can also tell you that based on the evidence that we received, that our experienced and diverse committee made up of members looked at everything, including all of that footage, and the fact that they also saw that the troopers tried to render aid prior to the ambulance being called in,” she said.
Adel said the criticism for the way the office handled the case is “unfortunate.”
“While at a time of civil unrest, I understand that people are hurting,” she said. “I understand that people are upset, but ethically if we cannot go forward, we cannot bring this forth.”
Opponent: ‘Little more than a political stunt’
Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat, is running against Adel in the Nov. 3 election.
Gunnigle said in a statement that it is widely known body cameras are a smart policy decision that protects people and makes the criminal justice system transparent.
Since Monday, Gunnigle has accused Adel of being motivated by politics. She said the county attorney’s decision not to charge Cervantes was influenced by the upcoming election. Now, she is saying the same about her call for body-worn cameras.
“Unfortunately, this is little more than a political stunt that contradicts Adel’s previous stances just over 40 days away from the general election,” Gunnigle said.