Lexington police talk responsibility in body camera program
Several police departments in Kentucky, including Louisville Metro Police and University of Kentucky Police Department, purchased body-worn camera last year after the Department of Justice announced a $20 million pilot program for police departments around the country.
But the Lexington Police Department, which started its pilot program at the end of 2014, has yet to arm its officers with the cameras that are seen as a way to increase transparency and protect its officers.
Assistant Chief Dwayne Holman understands why there has been a national push for officers to be equipped with the technology. The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago played a huge role in national and local efforts.
But Holman says Lexington police wanted to take their time during the testing phase to develop a solid strategy for deploying the cameras -- and having the means to securely store the data. The department is going through contract proposals and could make a decision on a vendor in the next few weeks.
“Probably the biggest use of this -- obviously it’s community trust -- because most of the time there’s only a few people who know what happened between law enforcement and citizens,” Holman said. “For us, and the community that we live in and the relationship that we have in [that?] community, we felt like we could take our time, identify best practices, let some of the technology evolve a little bit as more and more people entered the field.”
Holman said they did not want to rush the technology to the field, particularly because there have been some agencies that quickly rolled out the camera programs and then had to make serious adjustments because they did not think about all of the variables. Lexington police have tried their best to develop the program before the cameras hit the streets.
To do that, Holman says the department put together a group of mid-level supervisors who evaluated best practices. They discussed the body camera program with local prosecutors, the Human Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. And they made adjustments to the 10-page policy after visiting police in Louisville, Utah and the Carolinas.
"We're trying to learn the lessons that those agencies learned so that we can try to avoid the mistakes they made," said Lt. Eric Lowe, who is working on implementation of the body cameras.
Lowe said research has been an important part of this process. Talking to other departments helped them determine that it was best for a third-party vendor to store the data, he said.
“We’ve done a significant amount of research trying to make the best decision that we can make," Lowe said. “One of the reasons we’ve taken the time that we have in making this decision ... we understand the importance and the scale of what we’re entering into with body cameras. We are going to be recording and storing initially tens of thousands of videos, could be hundreds and thousands of video. We’ve got to make sure we pick the right vendor from the beginning.”
Aside from developing a solid policy, storage is one of the most important ingredients in establishing a good body camera program.
"Buying the cameras is easy,” Lowe said. “The hard part is what do you do with all the video? How do you store it? The lessons we’ve learned from speaking to other agencies smaller than us, our size and some significantly larger than us is that it is very difficult to manage the storage of all that video in-house.”
Storage has been a conundrum for departments across the country. Agencies that decided to store the data locally started out with gigabytes of video, but soon found that they needed to shift that discussion to terabytes or even petabytes.
Snowden Becker, an audio visual preservationist at UCLA’s department of information studies, says storage can be one of the most costly aspects of getting body cameras on officers.
As an archivist who has studied law enforcement recordings for years, Becker expressed concern about how long the data will be preserved. Kentucky has a 30-day retention policy, meaning an agency must keep the video for at least 30 days before it can be deleted. If it is flagged as evidence for a case, they must hold onto it while the case moves through the court system.
“It’s important because the retention periods for serious crimes -- for evidence related to serious crimes -- can be indefinite,” she said. “So we will probably be holding onto these files long after the cameras that were used to create them and the systems that we’re using to access the files have become obsolete.”
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray put $600,000 in his budget last year to start the program and Lowe says they will eventually have 400 officers wearing the devices. But their expenses will increase over the years. Having that many officers uploading video was a concern for the department. For that reason, they have decided it’s best for a third-party to provide them with the cameras and create storage for them using cloud servers.
Susan Straub, spokeswoman for the city, says the mayor and police chief are totally committed to the program. It is likely the department will get more funding in next year’s budget, which will be unveiled on Tuesday.
A survey released in January by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs' Association said 95 percent of large police departments either have or will have body cameras. Agencies that don't plan on adopting the cameras expressed concerns about privacy rights.
The cameras can be seen at several departments in the commonwealth, including Bardstown, Berea, Corbin, Louisville, Ludlow and Richmond.
Once Lexington police are equipped with the cameras, they will join Louisville Metro Police as the state's two largest metro agencies using the cameras.
Louisville police Lt. Matthew Meagher, who works in the Planning and Technology unit, said 800 to 900 of the department's 1,200 officers will have cameras.
The department launched its program in July, after running a pilot program to work out the kinks before they mass produced it. Much like Lexington, Louisville police were very thoughtful in their process. They researched and analyzed other policies and equipment.
Louisville police officers have a variety of cameras to choose from, including cameras that are mounted on glasses, a ball cap, a vest or shirt collar. Their data is stored using evidence.com, a service provided by Taser, and they have unlimited storage.
Meagher said the department is going to have a study done to see whether there have been changes in use of force and officer complaints.
"I have heard a couple of different times that someone was acting foolish and when they saw the officer’s camera that changed," he said.
Joe Monroe, chief of the University of Kentucky Police Department, said he is aware of similar situations.
“The officers really were skeptical at first. But now after several instances where they’ve found frivolous complaints against the officer have been taken care of because the body cam footage showed the officer did not do anything wrong," he said. "They’re very supportive of them."
For his part, Monroe says camera technology was everywhere and it was important for his department to keep up with technology.
"Everybody has a camera now. Every smartphone has a camera in it so why not an officer have a camera, also?" he said. “We have to keep up with technology -- whether it’s body cams or cameras on campus, access control or whatever -- we’ve got to continually evolve as a law enforcement profession as we go through the next decade.”
Regardless, it is clear that the technology will become more common in the future. While it has some deficiencies -- for example, the camera can only capture what it can see and it can be knocked off during a struggle -- Becker says it is still important to get cameras on officers.
"The technologies by themselves won't produce greater transparency or accountability, but they can be a really important tool in that effort," she said. “What those recordings have given us the opportunity to do is look at how policing is done and verify that there are problems with that and it’s made it possible for police to improve their practice from within. But it’s also made it possible for us to argue that there is a need for change.”
And Lowe says his department is aware of what is at stake here.
“A lot of times if someone complains on an officer all we have is what they say and what the officer says," he said. "Now we’re going to be able to have an impartial recording of exactly what happened in that incident.”
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