Accountability, transparency drive use of body cameras by Columbia police

Sunday, August 24, 2014 | 2:31 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — When Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton saw body cameras at a conference, he decided he wanted to explore the technology further.

The department already had two body cameras, but Burton wanted five more for the downtown unit that patrols the area along East Broadway where bars and restaurants are concentrated.

The cameras provided video evidence for prosecutors and cleared a downtown officer after a woman accused the officer of misconduct, Burton said.

“We found out very quickly that intoxicated people don't give a real accurate view of things sometimes."

Burton said a desire for more transparency was a driving force behind making Columbia the first police department in Missouri to have body cameras for all its officers — a decision made before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

The ensuing clashes between police and protesters have led to a nationwide push to improve police accountability through the use of body cameras, said Mary Ratliff of Columbia, president of the Missouri NAACP.

"Transparency is so important, especially when the police officers are dealing with regular people,” she said.

At the least, Ratliff said, body cameras provide an accurate account of events.

Ratliff isn't alone in her desire for better accountability.

Assistant Police Chief John Gordon said that once other officers in the department caught wind of the technology, they also wanted cameras — so much so that some officers were willing to purchase the $300 cameras themselves.

"If I have officers asking me for a $300 device that could save an incident like Ferguson from happening here, how could you not do that?" he said.

The department purchased 102 body cameras in late July to add to the seven already being used, Gordon said. The newest cameras cost a total of $126,000 with an additional $40,000 per year for online data storage.

"It’s fair to say they probably spent that easily the first night in Ferguson," Gordon said.

Every uniformed officer, including officers with the K-9 unit, street crimes, patrol division, downtown unit and school resource officers, is required to wear the manually activated cameras while on duty, he said.

Since downtown unit officers often walk or ride bicycles, dashboard cameras are ineffective.

Gordon said each camera offers a 130-degree field of view and captures 30 seconds of buffered video before the officer activates it.

Each officer is assigned his or her own camera. The system keeps track of the time of the recording, the officer's name and serial number, the length of the video, and if the video should be kept for use by investigators or prosecutors. Videos that aren't needed are erased after 60 days.

Gordon said the cameras are placed in a charging dock that automatically uploads the video footage to the online system when officers finish their shifts.

"We’ve had our video capture our officers do stuff that they weren’t supposed to do," he said. "The videos do more good for us than anything else. They’ve exonerated more officers of wrongdoing than they’ve hurt them, and I think that’s why the officers are more willing to accept these types of camera systems."

Department policy requires officers to activate the cameras for all interactions with the public, Gordon said. "We are putting our officers in a position where they’re either right or they’re going to have to defend their actions."

Burton said public reception of the body cameras has been positive.

“The officers love the fact that it’s very transparent and it’s very open,” Burton said. “It holds people accountable on both sides of the equation.”

Burton said some cameras are even available for detectives and non-uniformed officers to check out if they are working public events.

Police officers aren't the only ones using video taken from the cameras.

Dan Viets of Columbia, a criminal defense attorney, said he has used video from body cameras in several cases.

"It’s really in the best interest of honest police officers and honest citizens that there be such recordings made," he said.

Viets said transparency in law enforcement is essential.

"There is often dispute of whether a defendant admitted to committing an offense or not," he said. "When there’s no audio recording, there’s really no way for the judge to know who’s telling the truth."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Ed Lane August 24, 2014 | 3:53 p.m.

Will Burton and his staff be wearing these cameras too???? Accountability works both ways, right?????

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 24, 2014 | 5:52 p.m.

The cameras represent a step in the correct direction, but to suggest they will ALWAYS provide an accurate account of events is not necessarily correct. There are too many possibilities involved for that to ALWAYS result in a clearcut case.

My question is this: while I definitely would like to see the cameras used, when they DO show irrefutable evidence that one party was clearly in the wrong, are advocates for that party willing to accept that evidence, or will they stick to pre-conceived notions of who MUST have been wrong?

Technology aside, at some point humans must step up and make informed decisions, based upon evidence.

(Report Comment)

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