West Chester Twp. and Oxford are the latest police agencies to deploy body worn cameras, and others will be following suit soon while some are still deliberating.
West Chester Assistant Police Chief Brian Rebholz said the department slowly began the rollout of 50 cameras in December and were outfitting the final patrol officer this week. There have been two instances so far in which the footage will surely be evidence when the cases get to court.
Cameras were rolling when 38-year-old West Chester resident Jason Lehman was allegedly “out of control” and vandalized the Children’s Learning Center on Jan. 29 and again two days later when Charles Warren allegedly tried to kidnap a postal worker and steal her vehicle.
Captain Joe Gutman said the cameras will be invaluable tools.
“A picture paints a thousand words,” Gutman said. “A video paints quite a bit more than that.”
Rebholz said the tools do however have some limitations.
“It’s not the panacea so to speak, it doesn’t answer everything, it’s only two dimensional and I think a lot of people have an expectation, OK this camera is going to show us everything that happened,” he said. “Well it doesn’t, it only gives you so much, you are just getting a view, you don’t get the perception of the police officer themselves. You don’t get the peripheral vision of what the officer is facing … We know its limitations and I think it’s working out pretty well for us.”
The implementation of the body camera program was five years in the making because there are still many unknowns about records retention, privacy and a host of other issues. One thing that isn’t a question in one judge’s mind is whether they can be used as evidence.
Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Keith Spaeth said he hasn’t had any cases yet with body camera evidence and doesn’t believe the other common pleas courts have yet either. He said the footage will be an invaluable evidentiary tool but there could be some issues that crop up, like privacy concerns of the officers who are wearing them.
“We’ve been using dash cam videos for years, I don’t see any evidentiary issues at all, or very few,” he said. “Now the downside is going to be the cost to maintain these and the privacy concerns of suspects and the privacy concerns of the officer… We’re giving up some things, we’re giving up privacy.”
The Oxford police force began wearing body cameras in January after the city council agreed to spend $36,092 for 27 body cameras. Police Chief John Jones said it is a little early to gauge how the officers feel about the cameras, but any trepidation should be outweighed by the benefits.
“I think there’s some reluctance on their part, is this just the administrators trying to discipline us for not wearing a hat or something silly like that,” Jones said. “That’s not our intention, but also I think it’s going to do some good things for us. Police reports, it’s going to help document and improve the accuracy of that and our testimony in court, I think for the public it will give you that transparency that so many are looking for.”
The police department’s nine-page policy manual on the cameras spells out when the cameras should be rolling and when not, like in the rest rooms, locker room and other places there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The cameras are to be turned on when an officer is responding to a call for service, as soon as safely possible, and cannot be turned off until the incident is over.
If an officer is entering a private domain, like someone’s house, he or she must inform the person they will be recorded. The person can decline, unless it is part of an authorized search or arrest.
Credit: DENISE G. CALLAHAN
Credit: DENISE G. CALLAHAN
Spaeth said the policies law enforcement agencies craft are going to be critical to many aspects of these programs. There are issues about when the cameras are turned on and off, what can be redacted, how long to keep the records, what can and cannot be made public, among others.
“I think there are going to be a lot of battles over what goes in and what goes out,” Spaeth said.
West Chester’s video feeds go into cloud-based storage — all part of the $151,999 five-year contract price — where they stay for 30 days, unless the officer flags it as evidence for court or if it involves an altercation between the officer and a member of the public.
So far in Butler County, Fairfield, Miami University, Monroe, Oxford and West Chester are the only police agencies employing the cameras. Hamilton is getting ready make a decision on which cameras they want use and plan to roll out the program this year.
The sheriff’s office says it is not planning to deploy cameras any time soon, both for cost — they would need 90 cameras so at West Chester’s price that could be about $300,000 — and cautionary reasons.
“We are looking at other agencies and other policies but at this time we don’t have them and are not planning on implementing them in the near future,” Chief Tony Dwyer said. “There’s actually some legislation that’s pending that basically will identify what’s public record and what’s not, so I think we need to wait for that legislation to come through so we can see exactly what out responsibilities will be.”
Dwyer also mentioned there is new technology they might want to study. Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw said virtually the same thing.
“We have been researching and reviewing for a while, along with the other Butler County agencies. Until a lot of questions are answered regarding privacy/storage cost issues we are holding off ,” he said. “We also researched different types of cameras at the OACP Conference and like some, we are waiting for a better type to arrive technology-wise. So there are several issues we would like to see answered before committing.”