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LAPD shooting of homeless man: First big test for bodycams?

Technically Incorrect: Bystander footage of LA police shooting a man dead has created a stir on YouTube. With two of the officers wearing bodycams, and an inquiry under way, the incident could be a pivotal point for police bodycam programs.

An image from footage captured by a bystander on LA's Skid Row. Two of the officers were wearing bodycams, footage from which is part of an investigation of the incident. Game Pundits; YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Cameras won't necessarily show everything that happened.

However, they've already given a glimpse into the fatal shooting of a homeless man by police in downtown LA, an incident that occurred Sunday after several officers had wrestled the man to the ground.

During a press conference Monday, LA police department Chief Charlie Beck said the homeless man "forcibly grabbed one of the officer's holstered pistols" (an assertion contradicted by some eyewitnesses).

One video of the incident was posted to Facebook and subsequently made its way to YouTube, where scores of people have viewed it.

The LAPD has revealed that two of the officers involved were wearing bodycams as part of a pilot program. "That offers a unique perspective that we believe will be crucial to determining the propriety of the officers' actions," Beck said, according to local NPR station KPCC.

Many police forces, from Seattle to New York, are experimenting with bodycams. Some are struggling with balancing privacy laws and the need for public accountability.

In Arizona in January, after a police officer was shot dead the previous month in what seemed like a routine house call, the local deputy police chief lamented that releasing bodycam footage of the incident only further upset the officer's family and colleagues.

In the Skid Row case, sides have already been taken by some. Those who view the police's actions as obvious overreaction would like to have incontrovertible evidence of that. Equally, the police, convinced there was an imminent threat to an officer's life, will want bodycam footage to exonerate their actions.

I have contacted the LAPD to ask if and when the bodycam footage will be released. I have also asked whether the department already believes the footage provides a clear perspective on what really happened. I will update, should I hear.

NBC News reported that Beck said it "would not be proper" to release the bodycam footage at this point, because it's too early in the investigation. He also told the news agency that he would release the footage and other evidence once an investigation of the shooting is complete.

Some might wonder how the incident escalated as it did. The police said Tasers didn't turn out to be effective. Beck said during the press conference that it appeared the officers "acted compassionately until the time when force was required." And police have confirmed that three officers shot at the man.

Will bodycam footage be able to definitively show that the police acted lawfully? This will surely be seen by some as the technology's first big test.