News

Wearing body cameras now the norm in law enforcement

Union photo by Andy Hallman

An up-close view of a body camera used by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
Union photo by Andy Hallman An up-close view of a body camera used by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.
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If a law enforcement officer has an interaction with a member of the public, there’s a good chance it is being captured on video.

More and more police departments and sheriff’s offices are having their officers wear body cameras. The cameras fit on an officer’s uniform, either under their collar or on their vest, and are small enough that they blend into the rest of the officer’s equipment. The Union learned that, of the three police departments and three sheriff’s offices in Jefferson, Henry and Washington counties, five of them use body cameras, and the sixth – Washington County Sheriff’s Office – has set aside money to purchase them.

One of the most recent adopters of body cameras is the Mt. Pleasant Police Department, which got them in April. Police Lt. Ryan Pilling said his department has had car cameras for about 14 years, and that body cameras are such an improvement in documenting interactions between police and residents.

“A car camera is stationary, just facing out the front of the windshield, but so much of what we do is in a house away from the car camera,” he said. “The body camera is with you the whole time. I really like them.”

Pilling said he’s already gotten used to wearing a body camera, and doesn’t even think about it now.

Jefferson County Sheriff Gregg Morton said his department began wearing body cameras more than five years ago. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office’s body cameras are connected to their car cameras so they start recording at the same time. Jefferson County was an early adopter of car cameras, getting them in 1992.

Constantly recording

Several law enforcement agencies in the area have car cameras with an interesting feature that allows them to capture an event 30 seconds before the officer pushes “record.” How is that possible? The camera is constantly recording. It only saves its footage for a brief time before deleting it to make room for more footage, but that constant recording allows officers to fully capture an event they observe, such as a car accident.

As soon as the officer pushes the “record” button, the computer knows to save the footage from 30 seconds ago instead of throwing it away as it normally does. The only thing those 30 seconds of footage won’t have is sound. Unlike the visual recording which is running at all times, the audio recording only begins when it is activated by the officer or triggered by the sirens.

Not all departments have a style of body camera that connects to a car camera. For instance, Washington Police Chief Jim Lester said his department’s car cameras are separate from its body cameras, and that the body cameras have to be turned on manually by the officer. Washington police officers have worn cameras for several years. Lester mentioned that his prior employer, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, received body cameras in December 2018. Lester wore a body camera, which was part of his radio.

Morton said certain actions can trigger a car camera or body camera to start its recording, such as when an officer activates their siren or emergency lights, or if the car drives above a certain speed.

If the video captures an officer making an arrest, the video is put on a flash drive, and it’s included in the arrestee’s case file. The case file becomes available to the county attorney (who would prosecute the case) and the defense attorney representing the defendant through a process called discovery, where both sides have to divulge the evidence they possess.

Instructions

The Union learned that all of the agencies in our coverage area that use body cameras instruct their officers to turn them on during any interaction with the public such as responding to a complaint, making an arrest, or conducting an interview. However, officers are allowed to turn off the camera if they are not performing a law enforcement matter, such as helping a stranded motorist.

“I instruct deputies to keep the cameras on, and we’ve never had an issue with that,” Morton said. “Nobody has come up and said they wanted video [to a case] that wasn’t available.”

Lester said his officers are allowed to turn off their cameras when assisting with medical calls, too.

One thing that was clear from all the departments was that officers are not allowed to edit their videos after the fact. When the video file is turned over to the attorneys, the attorneys are able to see everything that was recorded.

“I don’t want that ability, because I don’t want there to be any misgivings about what happened,” Morton said.

Helps evaluate officers

The Fairfield Police Department has had car cameras since about 2001, and body cameras the past six or seven years. Fairfield Police Chief David Thomas said the department has three body cameras, two for the officers on duty and a third as a back-up in case one breaks. It’s worth noting that sheriff’s offices usually buy body cameras for every officer since they start their shift at their home, unlike police departments which share them between officers since they start their shifts at the police station.

Thomas said he has found the cameras a great tool in evaluating new officers and helping them spot their own mistakes captured on video. He said the department has corrected some of its own safety procedures after watching video from body and car cameras.

Thomas said some officers were reluctant to adopt cameras of any kind – on the body or in the car – because of how they believed the footage would be used. They jokingly referred to them as “SIT” for “sergeant in trunk,” meaning it was like having a sergeant ride with them and tell them all the things they did wrong. Thomas said that even early skeptics of cameras have come around to seeing their benefits.

“Cameras have helped me immensely over my career,” Thomas said. “In court, there were so many times before the use of cameras where the defendant denied what happened. Now we just have to send our recording to the defense attorney and they can watch the event from three different angles.”

Thomas said the cameras have helped him handle complaints about officers, too, because he’s able to watch the video of the incident in question.

“Cameras have made internal investigations 1,000 times easier,” Thomas said. “We investigate every complaint that comes in, and I’m happy and proud to say that over 90 percent of the time our officers are exonerated.”

Jailers use them, too

Henry County Sheriff Rich McNamee said his department adopted body cameras 2.5 years ago, and last year his jail staff got them, too. Counting the 10 deputies, four reserve deputies and four jailers, that comes to 18 body cameras.

McNamee was the first deputy in the department to get a car camera in 2000. Now the sheriff’s office’s car cameras are synchronized to the body cameras so that when one comes on, the other does, too.

“Cameras are a good, solid investment because they protect both citizens and law enforcement officers,” he said. “They provide a true documentation of interaction between my staff and inmates or members of the public.”

Just like other sheriffs and police chiefs, McNamee instructs his deputies to record their interactions with the public, or record their interactions with inmates in the case of jailers.

“We serve the inmates three meals a day, and [the jailers] are supposed to activate their camera during meals,” he said. “That’s in case an inmate makes an accusation or becomes combative. We’ve got a documented transaction between everyone.”

Henry County’s body cameras are clipped to the officer’s shirt at the neck, which is a different style than other departments where they are clipped to a vest or secured with a magnet.

“In a nutshell, I think cameras are good,” McNamee said. “You can’t get much better evidence than a recording.”

McNamee is quick to point out that cameras are not a panacea. They don’t capture everything, just what’s right in front of them and within earshot.

“If someone is heckling you off camera, or if you’re hit in the back of the head, that’s not going to be on a body camera or car camera,” he said. “They do help citizens and my staff against false accusation, but they’re not fool-proof.”

McNamee said perhaps the only downside to the advent of body cameras is that attorneys are less likely to prosecute a case if there is no video to accompany it.

“It’s like if it’s not on video, it didn’t happen,” McNamee said.

Almost there

The only law enforcement agency in The Union’s coverage area that does not have body cameras is the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, though it’s not for lack of interest. Washington County Sheriff Jared Schneider said his office has money set aside for cameras, and expected to get them this year. Its car camera vendor is L3 Mobile-Vision, and the company promised to release its own body camera earlier this year, which it has yet to do.

Schneider said that, since his office has invested so much money in the company’s car cameras, he wants to ensure that the new body cameras will be compatible with them.

All of Washington County’s patrol cars have in-car video systems, the lone exceptions are the cars used by investigators who are not patrolling and making arrests. Schneider estimates the sheriff’s office has had car cameras for close to 20 years.

“Back in the day before car cameras, you had to take a lot more notes,” Schneider said.

Schneider said he was once in charge of setting up the in-car video systems for the department. He remembers that some of the veteran members of the department were not keen on cameras. In general, Schneider has a positive view of body and car cameras because they can resolve disputes about what really transpired between an officer and a resident.

When the sheriff’s office does get cameras, Schneider expects to buy one for each of his patrol deputies, of which there are 11.