A third observer may soon be coming to record interactions between city police and the public if the department gets its request to outfit its patrol officers with on-cop cameras.
The Dodge City Police Department has issued a bid request for 32 wearable camera systems, enough to outfit every patrol officer. If the department receives attractive bids, and the purchase is approved by the Commission, cops with cameras could be patrolling the streets at the start of 2014, Police Chief Craig Mellecker said.
Mellecker sees the cameras, which the department has been considering for about two years, as a logical upgrade from the in-car dashboard cameras currently in use.
“One of the drawbacks to our car cam system is it only captures what happens in front of the cars,” Mellecker said. A wearable camera “records the officer's point of view. ... It allows us to gather a truer picture of what's going on outside the car,” for example, when an officer enters a residence on a domestic disturbance call.
After testing cop-worn cameras for nine months, the Topeka Police Department purchased 30 Axon brand systems earlier this year from Taser, the company best known for its line of electroshock weapons. Along with the hardware, the Topeka department subscribes to Taser's cloud-based storage and administration system, Evidence.com.
“This real-time video speaks the truth between what happens between the officer and the citizen,” said Capt. Scott Conklin of the Topeka department.
“It's vitally important to have transparency between the public and what we do,” Conklin said. The cameras build the community's confidence in the department and lets department leaders know if training is making it past the briefing room door. “It feels good to know, as an agency, that you're making the right decisions across the board.”
When a camera-equipped officer in Topeka shot and killed a knife-wielding man in July, the District Attorney and the local sheriff, which investigate shootings by city police, were able to quickly rule the killing as justified.
Instead of it taking months to unravel an event, Conklin said, investigators got a clear understanding of the shooting as soon as they saw the footage.
“I can't say enough about [the cameras],” he added.
After favorable reviews from patrol officers the department expanded the program with a purchase of 45 additional cameras and expects them to be in service by the end of next month, Conklin said.
“Officers, frankly, don't feel they're ready to go on duty unless the [camera] is available,” he said.
The adoption of wearable cameras has been a growing national trend and has been generally supported by government watchdog groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, with some caveats.
Page 2 of 4 - “We're against pervasive government surveillance, but when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around, we generally regard that as a good thing,” the ACLU said in a statement.
It continued: “For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win-but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections.”
The group's official view is subject to change as real-world information becomes available, it added.
Most of the ACLU's concerns focus on who has control of recordings. Officers, for example, should not be able to edit video “on the fly” to remove evidence that would prove officer wrongdoing, the group said. And recordings should not be stored long enough to be used as a fishing tool against members of the public or potential whistleblowers.
“Retention periods should be measured in weeks not years,” the ACLU said, and video should be deleted after that period if not flagged for special scrutiny or in connection to a complaint or investigation.
Specifications issued by the Dodge police to camera manufacturers outline a minimum three-year period for videos to be stored and searchable. It also specifies that only police administrators should have the ability to delete recordings, not officers wearing cameras.
Some police unions around the country have balked at requirements that prevent officers from discretionarily deciding whether the camera is active, and others, like the Las Vegas police union, have sued for negotiations claiming that cameras are a clear change of working conditions which are agreed upon through contracts.
The cameras specified by the Dodge City Police Department will technically be recording all the time, but the video will not be saved unless the officer turns the camera “on.” At that moment, the 30 seconds of footage before the officer flipped the switch will be included in the video.
Mellecker said he does not expect any pushback from the local Fraternal Order of Police, Dodge City's police union. Dodge City officers “have nothing to hide,” he added.
A representative from the national office of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents officers in Dodge, would not comment on the local situation, but stated that it would be a clear change of working conditions.
The state-wide office in Kansas City could not be reached for comment.
Nationally, another issue surrounding the cameras is how the videos intersect with state open records laws and questions as to whether the recordings violate residents' privacy. Though, outside of a court order, which would require a lawsuit, Kansas limits access to many types of law enforcement records that are available in other states, including affidavits for warrants, narrative reports and the files on closed police investigations. Presumably this discretionary power of the government would include recordings made by wearable cameras.
Page 3 of 4 - Department policies on body camera recordings should mirror policies that exist for in-car cameras, Conklin said.
In Topeka, “If we have a citizens group with a complaint and a representative in that group wanted to view the tape, we generally, in certain situations, would roll that tape,” Conklin said. This has allowed the department to free an officer of suspicion of misconduct, and if residents know their interactions are being recorded, they are less likely to make a spurious complaint.
Also, officers that may have been comfortable under the pro-badge bias of “he said, she said” proceedings in conduct complaints may find themselves encouraged to remain “consummate professionals,” Conklin said.
While reliable long-term data are rare, early studies of departments where the cameras have been utilized suggest cameras reduce both complaints against officers and situations that escalate up the force continuum.
“In the information I've read, [the cameras] have reduced officer complaints and they have reduced use-of-force issues because people know their actions are recorded in video and audio. We're looking at all of that. Definitely we'd like to see complaints lowered and use-of-force reduced,” Mellecker said.
Case studies that he's read have reported “moderate to significant” decreases in use-of-force situations, Mellecker said. He has also discussed the technology with the Wichita police department that has started increasing its use of cop cameras after a favorable evaluation in its northern bureau.
“The assumption I make from that is that individuals they've encountered, knowing [the officers] are wearing these recording devices, don't act the same” as they would without recorded evidence, Mellecker said.
“It's going to help keep people safe on both sides. The truth is in the audio and video,” Conklin said.
The city police in Rialto, Calif., equipped its entire 66-officer patrol unit with cameras after a year-long study in their effects. What they reported was an 88 percent decrease in officer conduct complaints and a 60 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents.
“I wish we had this product 25 years ago,” he added. “I think justice would be better served … and the public would have greater faith in law enforcement.”
With only one-tenth of patrol officers in Topeka have been using the cameras in the past year, Conklin said the department doesn't believe it had a clear enough statistical picture to make broad assumptions, but reports have been positive, he said.
Topeka paid about $175,000 for its camera program, though Conklin said department specifications will likely affect cost. Around the country, most departments have paid between $1,500 and $2,000 per unit with the associated services, with Taser's Axon line of cameras being the most commonly adopted.
Bidding for the Dodge City cameras will close Nov. 8. The department did not specify an expected price range.
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