All Decatur policemen on the streets will be equipped with body cameras as of Sept. 1.
Police Chief Rex Hoskins said two of his officers have worn body cameras for about a year-and-a-half, and when the price of the technology dropped earlier this year, he decided to purchase enough to outfit every officer who interacts with the public regularly.
While the purchase was made long before the shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Hoskins said he could see what a difference a camera could have made in that situation.
“If this was activated and the officer did what he was supposed to do, by policy, there would be no ifs, ands or buts about what happened. We’d have it on video,” Hoskins said.
Decatur PD has tested five or six video cameras over the past several years, Hoskins said. He chose Taser’s Axon Flex cameras, which can be attached to an officer’s glasses, when he made his initial purchase last year. The two officers who wear the camera work traffic and overnight hours.
Hoskins said the department used to get complaints about traffic officer Keith Hilton, who was eager to wear the camera so an accurate picture could be shown.
“We always got complaints about him being rude, that he’d throw their driver’s license at them, stuff like that,” Hoskins said. “Now when people call up, we look at it and say, ‘No, it didn’t happen. He handed you your license. Would you like to come up here and look at the video?’ They drop it.”
He said the main reason he decided to purchase the cameras was not for officer discipline, but for the collection of evidence. The body cameras allow for the collection of both more and better quality evidence than the traditional dash-mounted cameras in police vehicles, which the department also uses.
For traffic stops, Hilton said the video captures exactly what he sees, including facial reactions and items inside the car that the dash-mounted camera couldn’t pick up. For a driving while intoxicated stop where a horizontal gaze nystagmus test is given, the camera can see directly into the eyes of the driver. The camera will also pick up more subtle movements like swaying back and forth.
Hilton said reviewing video could also be a way to help improve the officer’s skills.
“If an officer gets into a fight and ends up getting hurt, you can go back and review the tactics that were used,” he said.
Another useful feature is the 30-second pre-record buffer. While the officers manually begin and end the recording, the camera is constantly recording and keeping 30 seconds of video so that when the officer presses record, it automatically saves the preceding 30 seconds of video only, not audio. That can be helpful in capturing the initial infractions such as the speed on the radar gun or a car running a red light.
After seeing the success of the cameras, Hoskins ordered two more of the Axon Flex cameras along with 14 Axon Body cameras, which attach to the officer’s shirt.
The cameras are designed with battery life to function for a full 12-hour shift. Taser uses cloud technology to store the video at Evidence.com, and the video cannot be altered by officers. Officers must also go through several security steps before viewing a video. That video can then be sent to prosecutors working on the case.
County Attorney James Stainton said he has been impressed with the video submitted as evidence in cases he’s prosecuted. In addition to the added evidence on DWI cases, he said the cameras work well in domestic violence cases as well.
“In family violence situations, the victim is so stressed out, they don’t want to go outside and talk in front of a car,” Stainton said, referring to the dash-mounted camera. “With this, they can sit and have a conversation and the injuries can be seen close up.”
Decatur pays a monthly $10 storage fee per camera, and Hoskins said the technology is worth the extra cost.
“The more we can do for our officers to protect them from false claims and provide more evidence for the courts, the better off we are,” he said.
Over the next few days, officers will be trained on the policy for camera usage. Hoskins said any time an officer interacts with the public on a police matter, he wants the camera on.
In the future, Hoskins said he’d like to be able to outfit all his school resource officers with cameras as well.