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Missouri Case Spurs Talk Of Body Cameras For Police

August 27, 2014 by  

Missouri Case Spurs Talk Of Body Cameras For Police
Taser sells this body camera for $399.

ST. LOUIS (MCT) — The encounter in Ferguson that ended with a police officer fatally shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown has spurred police departments in the St. Louis area to do some deep soul-searching. Many hope to avoid the uncertainty of chaotic events by having video to investigate officers’ interactions with civilians.

Video recordings would allow judges and juries to see events unfold, helping to shed light through the often-conflicting or hazy recollections of eyewitnesses.

Nowhere is that more needed than in Ferguson, the north St. Louis County suburb at the epicenter of a racial crisis. The city is now seeking money to outfit its officers with wearable cameras that can be pinned to a uniform or attached to a pair of sunglasses.

The city of Ellisville in west St. Louis County quickly approved a $7,500 expenditure last week to do the same.

“It was an emergency item on our agenda to get officers wearing those cameras immediately,” said Ellisville Mayor Adam Paul, noting that all of the city’s police officers will wear them. “Nobody knows how the grand jury is going to play out. Our officers could respond to calls for service down in Ferguson.”

The issue of wearable cameras is just one of several headed to the White House for consideration in the fallout of the Ferguson unrest. As President Barack Obama ponders the possible demilitarization of civilian police, nearly 150,000 people have signed a petition to create a national “Mike Brown Law” requiring all police to wear cameras.

The cameras allow officers to capture video and audio of their interactions with the public.

Maj. Paul West, assistant police chief in Wentzville, said his department has been using the cameras for about two years and now has more than 40. He said the department has expanded their use and now all patrol officers have them.

West said a departmental policy mandates that officers turn the cameras on whenever they have interaction with the public.

The cameras are constantly recording. Images are retained in a 30-second buffer. When the officer hits record, the buffer is preserved and the camera continues to save what it sees. The officers then plug the cameras in to download the recordings at the end of their shifts. The video is kept on a data server.

Taser, an Arizona-based police and military equipment manufacturer, sells a 130-degree lens body camera the size of a deck of cards for $399.

“It works very well,” West said. “We have seen a decrease in civilian complaints, but it wasn’t like we had a whole lot of complaints prior to that.”

Such recordings could help police and courts determine right and wrong in situations where officers decide to use force. In Ferguson, the device could have helped determine the chain of events that culminated in the fatal shooting.

The department had previously purchased a few dash cameras for their squad cars and two wearable body cameras, but it didn’t have the money to have them installed and made operational. There is no police video of Wilson’s encounter with 18-year-old Brown.

“I think it helps clean up any ambiguity about the ‘he said, he said’ argument,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. “It helps keep everybody honest. Any time you can shed some light on a situation, it’s a good thing.”

The wearable cameras cost anywhere from $300 to $800. But data storage fees can increase that cost by thousands of dollars. Jeff McCreary, police chief in Crystal City, said his department in Jefferson County experimented with the cameras but “budgetary issues brought on by the economy of the area prevents their immediate purchase.”

Paul, the Ellisville mayor, said the price of the cameras has dropped dramatically over the years, allowing his department to make the purchases.

Police departments across the nation have considered using cameras. Earlier this month, a New York City official championed a $5 million pilot program to outfit 15 percent of the city’s police officers with wearable cameras. The move came after an officer on Staten Island fatally choked an unarmed man who was allegedly bootlegging cigarettes.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said in a statement that wearable cameras would “provide more accountability as well as help save New York City money on settlements related to false arrests and police misconduct.”

The Rialto, Calif., Police Department recently conducted a yearlong study into its use of wearable cameras. The department found a 60 percent drop in use-of-force cases and nearly a 90 percent drop in citizen complaints against its officers.

Police in San Diego have put the cameras to heavy use, but some have alleged the department has been shielded from releasing the recorded video to the public.

Some officers have complained about losing privacy or having another policy to follow. A spokesman for the St. Louis Police Officers Association declined to comment at length but said the organization’s position is that police should be given body armor before they get body cameras.

–Nicholas J.C. Pistor
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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