Body cameras become more common in regional police departments

Jenna Kuczkowski, Andrew Keiper, Anthony Dworning

Body-worn cameras are becoming as ubiquitous as a badge or a gun on most police officers’ uniforms, and many Northeast Ohio police departments have adopted the use of the cameras, despite often expensive operational costs.

The adoption of the technology comes after waves of scrutiny and unrest following highly publicized officer-involved shootings, like the controversial officer-involved killing of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. Many officials say the cameras are intended to provide an element of transparency between public and police.

“We reached out to the community to see what their interests are,” said Lieutenant Mike Lewis, from the Kent State Police Department. “With body cameras, for a number of reasons, it is about transparency.”

In Kent, Lewis said that after researching different cameras and consulting with community members, the force has determined that equipping its officers with body cameras wouldn’t be worth the cost. While there was definitely interest among residents, Lewis said there just hasn’t been a big push for the cameras in the city.

However, despite public sentiment supporting body cameras, many departments struggle to shoulder the expenses of the programs. Although federal grants, like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, exist to help local departments shoulder costs of programs like body cameras, some departments struggle to pick up the remaining tab. It’s unclear if Kent Police Department applied for any federal grants or funding for the program.

In 2017, Edward Byrne JAG records show that Ohio received over $2.3 million in funding across a number of counties and municipalities, with over $140,000 of that going to Akron city alone. Franklin County received no allocations this year. Neither did Cuyahoga County, although over $557,000 was spread out across four cities, including $521,267 to Cleveland.

Police departments in other Northeastern Ohio cities like Youngstown and Ravenna, have also expressed concerns with the price of cameras.

Captain David Rarrick, of Ravenna, said the department is waiting for the next generation of technology to release before investing in the program. He’s hoping to begin phasing in the use of body-worn cameras for all of the department’s officers, about thirty in total, within a year. That goal, however, depends on the department’s efforts to implement new policies and secure funding. He said the department is pursuing grants.

“We’re going to do this properly and carefully,” Rarrick said. “We owe that to our citizens.”

Departments in cities like Cleveland, Canton, Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, Streetsboro and most recently Akron all have body cameras in some capacity but a few have fall short of having a camera for each officer, where price is again a hot topic.

Stow Police Lieutenant Bryan Snavely said the department has worked to phase in the use of body cameras for two years, with each of the 41 officers on the force now equipped with one. Snavely said the department was awarded an Edward Byrne JAG grant, and the city picked up the rest of the cost.

“Stow Police has been an early adopter of this technology,” Snavely said. “We’ve had many agencies come view our equipment and set up here.”

Meanwhile in Akron, Crime Scene Sergeant Brian Armstead said that the department has 120 cameras out of the 245 they hope to equip their almost 440 officers with. The department collaborated with Kent State University’s College of Public Health to study the use and implementation of body cameras before phasing in the program.

“We decided which units would get the cameras,” Armstead said. “Patrol obviously the most visible arm of the police department so patrol officers all have a camera no matter what shift they are assigned to or what district. Our traffic officers have them.”

The Stow Police Department manages to save money by storing all the video on an in-house server instead of cloud-based technology. Each camera cost the department around $1000 and is made by the same company that makes their in-car cameras, allowing for an easier back-end software set up, according to Snavely.

 

Stow currently stores all video for a year, although Snavely said the policy may be lengthened to two years. Video storage is often considered a hidden cost of body-worn cameras, with some departments, like Streetsboro, opting to keep theirs for only six months. According to Armstead the Akron police department bases the duration of storage on the severity of the offense, adding that video from homicide cases are kept forever since they can be appealed multiple times.

With the introduction of body camera footage into the public records pool, it has become heavily debated on what is and isn’t considered an invasion of privacy and what can be requested as a public record.

In Akron, all records requests for body camera footage are sent through the chief’s office, in the same manner requests for dash cam videos are handled.

There are no state or federal laws on the creation of a body camera policy for police, and the departments are left to craft policies individually. This includes determining when and how officers are to turn on their cameras to record the incident. In Stow, Snavely said the cameras are automated to turn on whenever an officer turns his cruiser lights on.

In Akron, the department trains their officers to flip on their cameras any time they interact with the public. But, the devices are always recording, at least video. When engaged, any documented recording will include the prior 30 seconds of silent footage.

While departments hope the cameras promote transparency and trust between police and people, they’re not considered a cure-all by police.

“It’s just a tool,” Snavely said. “It provides part of the investigation, not the whole investigation.”

Individual Roles:

Andrew Keiper: Wrote text story, interviewed Stow, Streetsboro, Ravenna police departments.

Anthony Dworning: Filmed interviews with Akron and Kent police departments, edited video and created package.

Jenna Kuczkowski: Wrote text story, interviewed (Didn’t hear back with extensive info) Canton, Cleveland, and Cuyahoga Falls. Created interactive map.

Tweets:

 

https://twitter.com/FrancisAnthony7/status/918191701436588038