Police body cameras: Another eye on the streets

As violence surrounding police officer-involved shootings becomes more common, the call for body cameras is stronger than ever. But getting body cameras on every officer is not as easy as it seems, even when officers themselves are the ones pushing for them.

Body cameras on the streets None

Ferguson, Missouri. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Atlanta, Georgia. All sites of recent police-involved shootings that sparked protests and, in some cases, riots. After each of these shootings, the consistent carrion call from the public is more oversight of police. An impartial third party to witness interactions. In essence, a third eye watching officers during these increasingly testy times.

That impartial third eye may likely come in the form of body cameras worn by police officers. But despite the knowledge that body cameras may be a solution, many local departments still have not instituted body camera systems. The problem may come down to available funding.

Body cameras provide an extra eye that can explain the actions of an officer or suspect. Most police cars already have cameras in them, but a camera worn on an officer’s uniform can take you inside the action. 

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The second an officer goes into a building, he is out of view. The camera inside the patrol car will record audio, but only a body camera can visually document what happens inside.

Cobb County police invited Investigator Rebecca Lindstrom to find out first hand, allowing her to ride along with Officer Jarod Peer from Precinct 3. Lindstrom and photographer Luke Carter documented his day with a traditional news camera as well as a police body camera to better understand the technology and its impact on the precinct and police as a whole.

Cobb County police officer Jarod Peer has been wearing a body camera for several months and says he welcomes the transparency.

“This is a greater opportunity to record the actions presented by others and show why certain decisions were made on the part of the officer," he said.

Cobb County has had in-car cameras since 1995 for all of its patrol vehicles. Right now, 133 officers wear body cameras. That's approximately one-third of the department’s uniformed officers. The county recently ordered 100 additional cameras.

PHOTOS |  A day in the life of a police officer

Technology has helped Precinct 3 investigate nearly two dozen complaints or policy violations the past year - from vehicle pursuits that never should have started to officers who wrote traffic tickets to the wrong person.

The video leaves no question when officers use foul language or fail to keep their cool. One officer was investigated four times in one month for shoving a person’s face into the asphalt, flipping off a suspect, and damaging evidence in a drug case. That officer was allowed to resign shortly after.

But Major Jeff Adcock says most of the time the video shows his officers doing it right and provides the department an opportunity to prove it.

WEB EXTRA | Review process body camera footage goes through

What happens to the body camera footage? None

Adcock showed Lindstrom a video of an officer stopping a driver for running a red light. After the incident, that driver wrote a letter to complain the officer had been “extremely unprofessional.”

Adcock reviewed the video and found the complaint unsubstantiated. Adcock says he informed the driver of the video and invited it to come watch it with him to point out what he may have missed. The driver never responded.

At every stop during the ride along, people noticed and shied away from the television camera, but never seemed to realize they were already being recorded by the officer.

“I didn’t even know he had on one until you told me,” said Anthony Calderon, a motorist stopped by Peer for failing to signal while changing lanes.

Calderon says he thinks every officer should wear a camera. “With what’s going on, yeah. What’s happening now days I think it’s great.”

For all the promises of transparency, having a video doesn’t guarantee the public will get to see it, at least not until the investigation or trial is complete. That can take years.

“In most cases if it’s under criminal prosecution or results in a civil case, the police department does not have to release that video,” said Adcock.

But Adcock admits, there’s nothing that legally prevents them from releasing it if they want.

Adcock says prosecutors don’t want to taint the jury pool and while police would often like the opportunity to defend themselves while the protests are in progress, they have an obligation to do their part to make sure the legal process is fair.

“It’s a quandary. It’s a quandary. And I don’t know what the answer is,” said Adcock.

But what can be released, are all those videos that didn’t lead to a ticket or arrest, like a domestic violence or suspected robbery call. If the video doesn’t show a minor, in most cases anyone can make an open records request and get a copy of what may have been a private or embarrassing moment, caught on film by someone called to help.

“There’s some privacy components to this that  have not been thoroughly vetted.  And people in the public, I’m not sure understand those privacy issues exist.”

Body cameras do have limits.

In the past year, two officers in precinct 3 were disciplined for failing to turn on their recording devices and as Lindstrom discovered first hand, you have to learn how to position the device to actually record what matters.

“If you’re running, you’re fighting, I don’t care what you have on.  My radios going to fall out, the cameras probably going to fall out.  But it will capture the moments leading up to that.  That’s the most important part,” added Peer.

Sometimes the cameras simply don’t work.

WEB EXTRA | The limitations of body cameras

In the past year, two officers in precinct 3 were disciplined for failing to turn on their recording devices and as Lindstrom discovered first hand, you have to learn how to position the device to actually record what matters. None

“How often are you on your cell phone and you drop your cell phone call? Or how often does your cell phone lock up and you have to turn it off and turn it back on? The camera system is no better.”

Adcock fears a camera failure at a critical scene could lead the public to believe the officer or department is trying to hide something.

But Adcock still believes body cameras will help – more than hurt. He says it’s something most police departments embrace. 

Cost is the biggest challenge to many police departments when it comes to instituting body cameras. A recent Justice Department/Police Executive Research Forum study found the cost of an individual camera can range from $200 to $1,000+. However, it’s the storage that puts body cameras out of reach for many departments. Costs for video storage routinely reach in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single year of body camera footage.

In fiscal year 2015, 285 police departments applied for grants through the Justice Department to purchase or expand their body camera program. Even though the DOJ awarded nearly $20 million, it was only enough to help 73 departments.

“In our current environment there’s a lot of stress for officers, a lot of stress. And what’s not known literally for the last, since Dallas and Baton Rouge, every single day there’s been somebody locally who has threatened to kill a police officer.  Almost every single day,” said Adcock.

WEB EXTRA | The cost of body cameras

WEB EXTRA ' Cost of body cameras None

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