ATLANTA — The Georgia State Patrol didn’t have a body camera policy when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked for it in April of last year.
“We currently do not use body cameras,” Georgia Department of Public Safety Commissioner Col. Chris Wright responded. “Each vehicle is equipped with camera systems,” he added, according to internal emails we obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act.
The Georgia State Patrol still boasts three decades later that it was the first agency in the nation to deploy dash camera systems. But, the statewide law enforcement agency is among the last to use the type of body-worn cameras that have become the standard in police departments large and small.
Previously, the state patrol told 11Alive investigators that troopers don’t need body cameras because most interactions between troopers and the public take place in front of the police cruiser and would therefore be captured on the dash camera.
“That's simply not true," said Andrew Lampros, an attorney who recently won a $4.8 Million settlement for a widow from the Georgia Department of Public Safety. “And, this case is a great example of that."
SHOT FOR A BROKEN TAIL LIGHT
Julian Lewis was shot by Trooper Jacob Thompson in south Georgia in August of 2020. The reason for the stop was a broken tail light lens on Lewis’ car, even though the light itself was working.
Lewis was Black. The trooper was white.
When the trooper turned on his blue lights, Lewis signaled that he was turning down a dirt road. His widow, Betty Lewis, told 11Alive they had family there and she believes her husband was afraid what actually happened could happen.
“A slow speed, at best, pursuit ensued,” Lampros said.
11Alive obtained previously unreleased dash-camera footage of the incident through a recent records request. The case is still open, but county and federal prosecutors agreed to release the video.
On the recording, you can see Trooper Thompson’s cruiser nudge Lewis’ bumper using a PIT maneuver to force the car out of control.
"You can hear the trooper unbuckle his seatbelt and then immediately you hear a gunshot,” Lampros said.
The plaintiff’s attorney had obtained the video long before its public release. Betty Lewis saw the video, too.
The widow told us, “You can hear the gunshot, but you can also automatically hear Thompson saying, ‘Put your hands up!’ But he was already dead. He had already shot him.”
THE SHOOTING WAS ENTIRELY OUT OF FRAME
While you can clearly hear the sound of a single gunshot, and Trooper Thompson’s repeated commands to Lewis, who had been fatally shot in the head, all you can see on the video is an empty dirt road.
Lewis, his car, Trooper Thompson and the shooting itself are entirely out of frame.
Responding deputies from the Screven County Sheriff’s Office who showed up after the shooting were wearing body cameras but not the Georgia State Patrol trooper who pulled the trigger.
“It wasn't just what we saw," Lampros said. “It’s what we didn't see and what should be there and isn’t there.”
The only witness to tell us what happened is Trooper Thompson because Julian Lewis is dead. The only camera on scene was the dash camera that missed the entire shooting.
LARGEST SETTLEMENT IN GEORGIA HISTORY
The State of Georgia and its insurer agreed to pay $4.8 Million to the Lewis family. It’s the largest pre-litigation settlement in the state’s history.
Trooper Thompson wrote in his report that Lewis revved the engine and was jerking the wheel of the car, causing the trooper to fear that Lewis would use the vehicle as a weapon.
The GBI testified that the vehicle was disabled by the crash following the PIT maneuver and could not have been used as a weapon when Lewis was shot in the head.
A grand jury declined to indict the trooper. Thompson’s POST certification is currently suspended, but the internal investigation and criminal case remain open.
GSP IS NOT THE ONLY STATE PATROL WITHOUT BODYCAMS
11Alive investigators contacted every state police agency in the nation. At least 19 state patrols currently don’t use body cameras for the majority of their troopers, including Georgia.
The others include:
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Dakota
Nearly all the agencies currently not using bodycams expressed interest in adding them soon, while others were waiting only on funding.
A few, like Georgia, have shown little interest in supplementing their dash recording systems with body-worn cameras.
Shortly after that request from Homeland Security last year, the Georgia Department of Public Safety quickly created a body camera policy. 11Alive obtained multiple drafts and red-line documents through a records request.
DPS ordered body-worn cameras for the Georgia Capitol Police and troopers on Jekyll Island, where troopers are regularly on foot and not in their patrol cars.
Capt. David Bryant wrote to the department’s legal counsel in January of this year that motor carrier enforcement troopers had requested the cameras, but “no other Units nor the command staff have expressed interest in anyone else using them.”
MOST GSP SHOOTINGS TAKE PLACE OUT OF FRAME
11Alive investigators requested all releasable dash camera recordings for deadly Georgia State Patrol shootings over the last five years.
DPS gave us recordings from 11 incidents since 2017. Nine out of those 11 shootings occurred completely or mostly out of frame.
Only two shootings were captured on camera at a distance from the cruisers.
In one shooting, a handcuffed suspect was able to pull a gun from the small of his back and shoot a trooper, but you don’t see that on camera. The trooper was hit in his vest and survived, but the video from his patrol car captured only the response of other troopers and the sound of the gunfire.
There is likely other dash camera footage of that shooting from the other troopers’ dash cameras, but if it does exist, that video was not provided to us as required under the records act.
There are certainly dash camera videos from other shootings, but the records act does not require law enforcement agencies to release those if the cases are still open, so we are not able to see how many of those occurred on camera or off.
Some cases were closed, at least in part, because the shootings were recorded by body cameras worn by local police present at the time of the shootings involving troopers.
Troopers have been cleared because of body camera recordings, but not their own because Georgia’s highway patrol doesn’t use them.
GSP WANTED TO ANSWER OFF CAMERA
We asked the state patrol for an interview for this story on May 4, 19 days before publishing. The agency did not immediately respond.
After resending our request on May 9, GSP wrote back on May 11, “Please send your questions over in writing, we will respond to the questions in writing as promptly as possible.”
DPS counsel Joan Crumpler wrote the next day, “We have invited written questions from you for the Department’s written response(s). For clarification, this is in lieu of an on-camera interview.”
11Alive investigators made it clear that we never provide questions in advance.
We did not send written questions other than to ask that GSP tell us about any changes in the use of body cameras for troopers.
Just like the majority of shootings involving the GSP, the agency’s answers would have been off-camera.
Editors note: This article was edited on May 27 to update the number of states from 16 to 19, adding Arkansas, Colorado and Georgia. It was updated again on May 31, to reflect the addition of Maryland.