Police body cameras in Delaware: Seeing is believing?

Smyrna Police Department is transitioning to a body camera that’s slightly smaller and lighter than the current devices. But, how helpful are the cameras to police — and citizens? (Submitted photo/Smyrna Police Department)

Smyrna Police Department is transitioning to a body camera that’s slightly smaller and lighter than the current devices. But, how helpful are the cameras to police — and citizens? (Submitted photo/Smyrna Police Department)

SMYRNA — For about 4½ months Delaware State Police have evaluated the merits of trooper-worn body cameras with an eye on permanent implementation.

The pilot program involves 25 trained troopers testing the capacity to record their actions with a self-activated device.

A check with the Smyrna Police Department would elicit rave reviews.

The municipal law enforcement agency in northernmost Kent County currently has approximately 17 cameras on the streets each day, with every patrol officer equipped with a device.

“The cameras have proved useful in countless situations from the most mundane to the most serious,” said spokesman Cpl. Brian Donner.

While the cameras are seen as significant additions to a crime fighter’s set of tools, “it hasn’t affected day-to-day police work whatsoever in the sense of how we operate,” Cpl. Donner said.

“We have always strived to provide the most professional police services to the community we serve. This mission has continued whether we’re wearing cameras or not.”

A camera’s value comes in the aftermath of an interaction, authorities said, and “the only thing that has changed has been the after the fact [including] the reviews of use of force incidents, the investigation of citizen complaints etc.,” Cpl. Donner said.

“Our supervisors and command staff now have nearly real time access to incidents when they occur. One of the main benefits of this is we can ascertain very quickly whether or not an incident/complaint/use of force requires follow up investigation.

“It eliminates some of the old school legwork required. With these cameras, when they are used properly, they often let the events speak for themselves absent any one person’s opinion or interpretation.

Besides Smyrna, six other police departments currently use the cameras, including New Castle County, Ocean View, Middletown, Smyrna, Bethany Beach, Delaware State University and the University of Delaware.

Concerns about control

While body cameras have been touted as increasing law enforcement’s transparency while holding an officer and citizen accountable for their actions, Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, is concerned that police control of the devices, in general, “makes use of the camera almost irrelevant.

“[An officer] can turn it on when he’s seen in a positive light and he could turn it off when he might be seen negatively in some way such as during a search or the wording he uses in a situation.

“Also, the policy does not allow civilian access to body cameras unless the police administration signs off on it. Police have complete control in what’s saved, deleted, and reviewed and an officer has the ability to turn it off in mid-encounter.”

Ms. MacRae believes an officer has too much discretion on when to turn a camera on, and believes that a default setting should assure that a camera remains on unless “there is a very specific reason why it should not be on” such as witness and informant protection, and domestic situations.

In addition, Ms. MacRae maintained, “There is no procedure for review of officers’ behavior or discipline when they don’t turn on a camera.”

The daily ongoing costs of operation can add up quickly, Ms. MacRae said.

“The more footage you save, the more expensive it is.”

Even though “people know they are being recorded,” Ms. MacRae said, “we just don’t know what information is being collected.”

The recordings begin

Smyrna Police Department’s camera program began in August 2012 to better document the actions of School Resource officers. The chief of police approved the addition with input from his staff and the SROs.

“Due to them being away from their vehicles and in a building for a majority of their contacts with the population they serve, these body worn cameras filled a void,” Cpl. Donner said.

“Whereas a traditional patrol officer had access to an in car camera equipped with a body worn microphone, the SROs did not have this so all of their contacts/enforcement action were not recorded pre-body cameras.”

Now, the most common camera is a rectangular shaped Watchguard brand HD device that’s approximately 4 inches tall, 2 inches wide and 2 inches deep, weighing less than a pound. Smyrna Police is transitioning to a slightly smaller, lighter Taser International brand Axon model.

While the “budget varies depending on our needs,” Cpl. Donner said grant funding over nearly four years have offset costs. Recently, Smyrna Police learned it would receive approximately $10,000 to upgrade to the Taser cameras.

The incoming money will cover roughly 65 percent “of the costs associated with the upgrade to the new model along with access to cloud storage for the new cameras,” Cpl. Donner said.

Citing strict adherence to policy and procedure regarding camera usage, Cpl. Donner said, “They are engaged in the vast majority of our contacts with any citizens.

“Our officers also have the discretion to activate them even in a situation where they are not required to if they so choose.

Easy to engage

The cameras are engaged by pressing a button.

“They are very reliable and have only become more so as time goes on and technology improves,” Cpl. Donner said.

A camera’s memory can store several hours of footage and Cpl. Donner said, “once this footage is uploaded to the storage server (Watchguard) or cloud (Taser) the device itself is empty and ready for new footage.”

The devices have received positive reviews from officers.

“Many were apprehensive at first, as cops tend to be with any new change,” Cpl. Donner said.

“Once we all got used to the technology and saw its benefits first hand we were sold on it. Nearly every officer here, if given the choice, would refuse to work without a camera on their body.”

Smyrna Police’s command staff manages uploaded video and storage, and daily maintenance of broken cameras “generally falls back on the manufacturer,” Cpl. Donner said.

Cpl. Donner stressed that “in most circumstances, officers who upload video have access to it for review, report writing and court purposes. An officer cannot delete a video but they can watch it.”

Great HD quality

An upgrade to HD cameras have made captured images “great” according to Cpl. Donner. However, occasionally in extreme low light situations the video quality can suffer.

There’s been little response to the cameras “one way or the other,” Cpl. Donner said.

“Many members of the public we interact with do not seem to notice the cameras. In certain instances it benefits the officer to remind the person they are interacting with that they are being filmed.

“There are also situations where according to policy, the officer must make the people being recorded aware of the camera.”

On a negative note, “like with any other technology we utilize, it can sometimes be fragile,” Cpl. Donner said.

“Nothing is perfect and technology is always evolving. Furthermore it is one more piece of equipment that we must wear day to day.

“In today’s policing it sometimes feels like we don’t have a single inch of our bodies that isn’t covered with some piece of equipment.”

When citizens point a camera at an officer in a lawful manner, Cpl. Donner said that’s OK.

“Although it does not occur every day, our officers do encounter situations where the public is recording them,” he said.

“We respect everyone’s rights to record us as long as it falls within the parameters of the law and is not in direct interference with any actions we need to take.”

Ocean View Police Chief Kenneth McLaughlin concurred.

“To date, we have had very few instances where officers are being filmed,” he said.

“Personally, I have no problem with anyone filming; however, when uninvolved parties distract and/or interrupt officers, it creates a safety hazard for all.

“As long as people respect the process and give the officer some space, it is OK by me.”

Ocean View’s view

While attending a National Law Enforcement Summit for Small, Rural and Tribal police departments in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2009, Chief McLaughlin was introduced to emerging technology of body-worn cameras.

Upon return to Delaware, Ocean View’s top cop purchased several MUVI micro cameras (less than $100 each) highlighted at the conference from the general budget and distributed them to some officers for testing and evaluation.

“The officers loved the cameras, and found them to be very useful in documenting arrests,” he said.

“The cameras were particularly helpful in documenting DUI investigations. Officers were able to dictate and record notes verbally, which made things safer at the scene and provided for more accurate reporting of the incident.”

The testing phase led to the purchase of cameras for each officer in 2010. Ocean View Police Department currently has 10 cameras — one for each officer and a spare.

According to Chief McLaughlin, there’s no annual budget for the cameras, which cost $900 and have up-front expenses only. Six cameras and a server upgrade to memory storage were covered by a grant from Sussex County, he said.

“The rest came from my non-capital budget line,” according to the chief. “The cameras are used regularly in a variety of situations, to include traffic stops, arrest situations, and other encounters.”

Official policies for the device’s use are in place, and the cameras are engaged by sliding the lens cover downward.

“Note that this sounds simple, but we have found that under stress, officers sometimes forget to activate the camera,” Chief McLaughlin said.

“As to reliability, that depends. They do function as advertised, however, there are many limitations associated with the technology.”

Data is stored and safeguarded using ViEVU proprietary software, Chief McLaughlin said.

Aids reporting, documentation

While the cameras have had no major affect on police work, the chief believes there’s a big plus.

“The biggest benefit is as an aid for report preparation and proper documentation of events,” he said.

“I would like to believe that the video has resulted in less cases going to trial, however, there is no research to support that belief.”

Ocean View officers “love the cameras and wear them voluntarily,” said Chief McLaughlin, who handles camera oversight and maintenance with the department captain.

While the “overall image of the cameras is good, the cameras are not equipped with low-light or other imaging enhancement features,” he said.

“Video is not HD quality.”

Public response has been positive and “local media has highlighted the use of the cameras and we are a small community; therefore, most everyone is aware that the officers are using cameras,” Chief McLaughlin said.

“My main beef with the cameras is lack of understanding on the part of the general public,” he said.

“Cameras in no way tell the whole story. Cameras can’t document things like perception, decision making and fear. Time (speed of an encounter) and distance can also be distorted.

“Imagine what it would be like if the referees at an NFL game only had one camera angle to view on a contested call?”

State police program

The Delaware State Police announced a pilot program for body worn cameras on Feb. 25, with 25 trained troopers throughout the state equipped with the device.

Authorities said the program was designed to analyze results of using the devices and their feasibility moving forward.

When announcing the program’s launch authorities said, “As body-worn video has become increasingly more important to our communities, the Delaware State Police has begun piloting body worn cameras.”

According to state police Superintendent Colonel Nathaniel McQueen Jr. in a news release, “Conducting a body-worn camera pilot project will provide the Delaware State Police with a great opportunity to evaluate the impact of body-worn cameras on Troopers and on the community.

“It will also provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate the different types of technology, evidence management, data storage available and to finalize a uniformed body-worn camera policy.

“The pilot program also will enable Delaware State Police to determine how best to implement a permanent body-worn camera program.”

A Delaware State News request for further information and a program update from the state police this week was unsuccessful.

Dover police continue to research body cameras use.

“We know that they will more than likely be implemented in the future,” spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

Especially noteworthy is results that the Delaware State Police see with a “variety of models from several manufacturers,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“Our decision will likely be based on those experiments. The two biggest issues are cost and storage — including space for storage servers if necessary.”

Eight-page manual

An eight-page policy manual on body warn cameras resulted from months of collaborative meetings between the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, Attorney Generals Office and Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The policy included procedures for when and how to use the devices, when and how to store data, chain of command for oversight and restrictions for their use.

The policy manual was to be sent to all law enforcement agencies currently using body warn cameras, along with those considering adding them.

The measure announced publicly on June 29 came after state lawmakers passed House Concurrent Resolution 46 to create a uniform guidelines for the cameras.

Policy dictates that the cameras should be engaged in all situations where an arrest, detention or use of force is likely, along with at an officer’s discretion.

When the cameras are in use, according to policy, officers must tell persons they are being recorded if possible. Documentation is required regarding the use of the cameras, which can’t be used by officers off duty.

Also set were procedures on how to mark footage considered essential and possibly part of further proceedings in a matter. Data will be downloaded and secured within a recommended 96 hours.

‘Restore trust’ in police

Describing body cameras as a “win-win” when policies are enforced, Citizens For Criminal Justice founder Ken Abraham supported their use in police work.

“They will benefit the public and law enforcement in an intangible but very real way, by helping to restore trust in our police,” he said. “It will deter police misconduct.

“In recent years, some ‘bad apples’ have destroyed the public’s faith and trust in police; with cameras we can see ‘it really did happen just as the officer said it did.’ “

Mr. Abraham believes the cameras have significant benefits for how law enforcement operates.

“They will aid police in several ways, not the least of which is by preserving an actual view of what occurred, which can be used as evidence, or to ID suspects,” he said.

“They also will deter some people from assaulting police or engaging in other illegal conduct, because they know they are being filmed.”

Public safety will be enhanced, Mr. Abraham maintained, and there’s a financial benefit body cameras as well.

“It will reduce crime, and police body cameras will save taxpayers millions of dollars which many do not even realize they are paying: the cost of litigation filed by those claiming police abuse.

“With cameras, we will see a decline in those cases, and that is real money… the public pays for the attorneys (for the police, and sometimes for the claimant), the courts, and everyone involved when those cases are filed.

“This savings alone will more than offset costs associated with the cameras.”

Also, Mr. Abraham said, “The tragic and senseless slaying of five innocent police officers in Dallas is the kind of violence which body cameras, in the long run, will reduce.

“Those shootings almost certainly were a reaction to a couple of recent shootings by police, widely publicized. The body cameras, once widely deployed, will lessen all of this violence.”

 

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.