Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

March 21, 2014

Body cameras capture evidence while protecting the public and officers

TAHLEQUAH — Long gone are the days of bulky, low-quality camera systems once mounted to the dashboards of police cruisers.

As technology has advanced, cameras have become smaller and cheaper, allowing many departments to do away with in-car cameras and instead attach tiny recorders –  often called on-officer cameras, or “body cams” – to the head or chest of officers.

“The biggest advantage to body cameras is the video and audio evidence captured,” said Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King. “We encounter recording devices regularly while dealing with citizens. These cameras will allow our officers to capture the entire event instead of bits and pieces.”

Tahlequah’s police force owns 15 body cameras, all of which were recently purchased with grant funds at a cost of about $300 each. King expects more cameras to be acquired soon with bond money.

“Videos will assist in more accurate reports being prepared by officers due to the fact they have video to reference while writing their reports,” said King. “This will increase our efficiency in the court system. The evidence captured will more accurately depict a situation better than even the most articulate, written report.”

King believes the use of body cameras will help maintain professionalism among officers.

“Officers knowing they are being recorded will be more mindful not only of what they say, but the manner in which they say it,” he said. “The officers who are currently wearing the body cameras have nothing bad to say about being recorded. The issuance of these cameras is not to be a spy tool to constantly monitor our officers; they are tools that are used to capture evidence and increase professionalism.”

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. Brian Orr said troopers embrace the use of cameras. The state police agency recently began buying body cameras for some marine enforcement troopers in Troop W.

“These guys are on their boats, so you’re not going to mount a [dash camera] on a boat,” Orr said. “If you did, it might be facing one way, but the trooper could be taking care of business from another direction on the boat.”

Attaching a camera to the trooper’s body ensures the scene is captured from any angle the officer experiences.

“This is a relatively new deal,” said Orr. “We like having cameras, we like being transparent, and we want the public to know this is what we do and this is how we handle business.”

Body cameras help collect and preserve evidence, but also provide protection for troopers and the public, he said.

Video archives can also be used for training.

“We can say, ‘Look what this trooper did; he handled the situation perfectly,” or, ‘Next time, we’re going to train to do it this way,’” said Orr.

In a 2006 study, the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that video captured through a camera helped exonerate officers of complaints or allegations made against them more than 96 percent of the time.

“When I’m on the road, sometimes I’ll even tell the violator, ‘I want you to understand you’re being recorded,’” said Orr. “It not only keeps me in check, but also keeps them in check. It helps ensure we’re not out here acting outside the scope of what we’re supposed to be doing, so it’s good for all sides when we use cameras.”

Body cams used by Tahlequah officers and state troopers record both video and audio, and allow the officer to turn the devices on and off as necessary.

“[Officers] do not have the power to edit videos,” King said.

Troopers with body cams are encouraged to have them rolling during any public interaction involving a possible traffic violation or crime.

“We feel that when you make contact, the recorder needs to be on, no matter what it is,” said Orr. “If you’re in contact with the public for them violating a law, it needs to be recorded.”

While thousands of agencies across the country now use body cameras, administrators often struggle to keep up with the necessary policy changes to govern their proper use.

“I am currently working with the Fraternal Order of Police so that a fair and comprehensive policy in regard to body cameras will be put in place,” King said. “The policy will cover proper and improper use of the cameras, when cameras are to be used, and tampering with evidence.”

Orr said the OHP plans next month to unveil its own policy, which will launch the department into the digital age and away from the current policy that refers to old VHS recordings.

“We, as a patrol, look at it like there are far more advantages to having these cameras than disadvantages,” said Orr.

jnewton@tahlequahdailypress.com

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