State legislation proposes body cameras for all Ohio officers

By Eric Poston, Kyle Dawson and Lauren Rathmell

Body worn cameras are becoming more popular for local police departments across the area. Several departments across the state are either testing body cameras or already using them, including Akron, Twinsburg and Aurora. These departments are ahead of proposed legislation in Ohio.

Ohio House Bill 587, if approved, would require law enforcement officers to use dashboard cameras and body cameras during any interaction with a member of the public while working. The bill would also provide state financial assistance to departments to help purchase cameras and related equipment.

In addition, Ohio House Bill 407 is also in the legislature and would require law enforcement agencies to adopt written policies for operation of the cameras and to make policies available to the public.

Kevin Boyce, who represents the Ohio House District 25, is primary sponsor of Ohio House Bill 407 and Ohio House Bill 587.

“It was just a combination of what was going on in the media as well as conversations in the community,” said Tamara Howard, Kevin Boyce’s legislative aide representative. “Boyce felt like there could be a space for this legislation to move forward and actually become a law.”

Howard said the bill is a good guideline for implementing the use of body cameras.

“The greater benefit is to provide an additional tool in the tool kit that our police officers have. There are departments who are using and some are entertaining the idea and it is important to have a policy in place.”

TESTING CAMERAS 

“The challenge for police departments consistently across the country is how do you pay for these.”

A push for body cameras for officers across the country comes following numerous officer-involved incidents, creating tension between police and citizens. 

Akron Police Lieutenant Mark Farrar said  the department began to research body cameras and how to implement them for the department about two or three years ago.

“The challenge for police departments consistently across the country is how do you pay for these,” Farrar said.

Following the Ferguson shooting, President Barack Obama implemented a $20 million fund for body cameras for law enforcement across the United States. Farrar said Akron applied for a portion of the grant from the Bureau of Justice Administration and the Department of Justice.

Akron was one of 73 departments that received grant money for a startup program. The department tested five different vendors, who offered different cameras including ones that are worn on the chest of an officer and ones worn on a pair of glasses. The camera worn on the glasses provides a point of view of what the officer is seeing. 

Farrar said there are pros and cons to each camera, but many of the officers complained about the cameras worn on glasses, getting headaches from the added weight. 

Akron is currently testing the last vendor and has already committed to purchasing 245 body cameras for every Akron patrolman and patrol sergeant. 

The department hopes the cameras will help improve transparency of the department moving forward.

“The community absolutely wants accountability and transparency from departments all across the country and Akron is no exception,” Farrar said. “In the end if cameras lead to the reduction in uses of force and complaints, I think by default the Akron Police Department will have a better relationship with the citizens we serve.”

There is still some debate of how long the footage would be kept, but if it involved a non-violent event then the footage would be kept for a month. Footage from an arrest would be kept between one to three years and a felony or murder incident would be kept three years or more. There are several state standards of how long videos must be kept depending on the case.

Farrar said in the next five years he personally feels the cameras are going to revolutionize the work of police work. He said 91 percent of the public across the country support body cameras and 75 percent of police officers endorse them too.

“I think you are going to see in the next five years there will be very few police departments that don’t have body worn cameras and we are kind of on the leading edge here in Akron adopting them,” Farrar said.

Akron plans to begin putting 245 cameras gradually on the streets either in late winter or early spring next year. Farrar said there will be public education about the cameras using billboards and holding public meetings.

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-11-11-04-pmIn Portage County, the Kent Police Department is also exploring the use of body cameras for their officers.

Lieutenant Mike Lewis said some officers have already expressed interest in using the cameras, and he thinks the community will soon have an interest as well.

“I’m aware of the House Bill that wants police departments all across the state to get body cameras and they are willing to throw 54 million dollars at it,” Lewis said. ‘That’s nice but it is going to be more expensive than that.”

Lewis said there are many aspects to acquiring body cameras that often go overlooked by departments, and these additional requirements add up.

Aside from just picking out a camera and buying it, Lewis said departments need to consider the number of cameras needed compared to officers on duty, the number of shifts in a day, and even battery life or back-up cameras if one breaks.

“Many police departments are finding that out after the fact about these additional costs. After they have already spent thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars implement these body cameras. Now, they need someone to manage these files,” Lewis said.

After purchasing the cameras, departments will need additional memory space, which requires more servers or cloud space to store video, something that can be costly.

“We have to shop around, we have to do our due diligence.”

At this time, Kent officers are in the research phase of body cameras, which will take months and months of resources.

“We are gathering as much information as we possibly can, we are in communication with body camera companies to look at pricing,” Lewis said. “We have to shop around, we have to do our due diligence before we spend the taxpayers money to purchase as many cameras we need. And it’s going to be expensive.”

The department is in possession of one body camera from Taser International, a popular body camera company, and will hold a demo soon.

“It is certainly not in the budget for 2016, I do not know if it will be in the budget for 2017. So we are several months, maybe a couple years away from using body cameras,” Lewis said.

Lewis looks forward to the reinforced sense of transparency that will come with the cameras.

“We don’t have anything to hide. We are very transparent here. We know that we are being recorded by cell phones many times we interact with the public, so we don’t have any problem with body cameras,” Lewis said.

However, cameras do bring up privacy issues with officers and citizens.

“I would not want to make police officers less approachable for people who need our help, or would simply otherwise be willing to interact with us if not for the video camera,” Lewis said. “There are some things that are not public record that would need to be edited from these videos, again software that costs money.”

Lewis hopes to hold a town-hall type council meeting to demonstrate the cameras once the research is ready.

“I think a lot of agencies throughout Ohio and throughout the nation want body cameras, but it is just a matter of being able to afford them,” Lewis said. “The cost is unbelievable.”