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Columbia Missourian

Police use body cameras, ID scanners to limit underage drinking

By Allison Heisdorffer
April 16, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Sgt. Chris Kelley of the Columbia Police Department talks with a patron of Generic Nightclub on March 11. Kelley is one of the downtown patrol now wearing a small video camera clipped onto his shirt front during patrol hours, which functions as another set of eyes and provides further evidence if any altercations occur.

COLUMBIA — Downtown police are using tiny body cameras and ID scanners, two recently acquired high-tech tools, to combat underage drinking and to document what happens between officers and citizens.

Though police and bouncers try to catch people using false identification, it can be difficult to catch them all. Using a recently received ID scanner, paid for by a state grant for alcohol enforcement, officers can improve their efforts.

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"We're not perfect,” downtown patrol Officer Eric Hughes said. “We’re human, and we’re going to miss a couple.”

Officers use the scanner to verify the authenticity of an ID. When they find a fake ID, most people admit to the deceit, but they get a summons anyway. The downtown officers have a strict policy of not giving out any warnings since they have proven to be ineffective, Hughes said.

The scanner is useless, however, when the person is using a real ID. This is an issue in situations where someone gives their ID to a younger sibling or similar-looking friend.

The officers are tough on IDs because drunk minors are a root of the overarching alcohol-related problems downtown, police said. But Hughes and Sgt. Chris Kelley said the main goal of the patrol is not to prosecute minors.

“Serving minors is an issue on several levels, but there are laws in place to prohibit that, and we’re enforcing those,” Hughes said. “Some people think (prosecuting minors) is our main goal, but our main goal is to make sure people are safe.”

Body cameras, which were acquired in October using funds from the department's budget, are about the size of a stick of Wrigley's gum and are worn on the officer's chest. It records the night’s incidents and arrests, allowing police to go back and review a situation.

The cameras also help officers document overcrowding, police said. If a bar appears to be exceeding its occupancy level, the downtown patrol calls the fire marshal.

“The cameras aren’t small because we’re hiding them — all the bar owners know about them,” Kelley said. "They’re small because we need to be able to carry them around with us."

Kelley said bar patrons don't even notice the cameras.

"The cameras protect citizens and officers,” Kelley said. “It’s a checks-and-balances system.”

Being able to record incidents allows police to verify the truth of a complaint brought against them. The small cameras protect citizens by accurately displaying an incident in question, Kelley said.

One such dispute involves MU student Olivia Schram, who has filed a formal complaint against the Columbia police in connection with a Feb. 25 incident that began at Campus Bar & Grill.

Schram said she and two friends were in the bar when an officer tapped her shoulder and asked for identification. According to Schram, the officer stared at the ID, then back at Schram and asked for a second form. Schram said she provided five forms of identification and a signature, but the officers made her leave the bar anyway. 

Kelley said the officers involved were not convinced her signature was legitimate. Although her ID scanned as legitimate, officers were still convinced she "pulled a fast one on them," said Kelley. But he said he could not say more because the incident is being investigated by the department's internal affairs unit.

"I think they saw an opportunity to intimidate a large group," said Jean Schram, Olivia Schram's mother. "They were making a point to the whole bar: They should be afraid."

Jean Schram wrote a letter to the department about the incident.

"She had all those IDs, and they just kept choosing not to believe her," Schram said. "I think at some point there has to be some expectation for police to believe people."