By Ron Nunnari
ENGLEWOOD — After the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and the resulting controversy over his death, the city of Englewood took proactive measures to take advantage of the new technology of body cameras.
Englewood became the first police department in Montgomery County to use body worn cameras.
Initially the Englewood Police Department invested in body cameras by Digital Ally, as the department already had that brand of cameras installed in all of its police cruisers.
“They became companion pieces and we used those until last year when we switched to WatchGuard, which is one of the best when it comes to body and in-car cameras,” said Chief Mark Brownfield. “We are really happy with it as we have seen a definite improvement in functionality.”
The city paid approximately $99,000 for body worn cameras and support software.
The department has a policy in place as to when the cameras are turned on. The policy states, “Officers shall use a Body Worn Camera to record all enforcement related citizen contacts. These contacts can include: Traffic stops, field interviews, arrests, calls for service involving criminal complaints, suspect interviews, and consensual encounters in which the officer is attempting to develop reasonable suspicion on the subject of the encounter.”
The BWC’s used by Englewood use a wireless sync with the in-car video recorder. When the in-car video recorder is activated, either manually, or by the activation of the cruiser’s emergency lights, the BWC activates automatically.
If not already activated automatically by the in-car video recorder, BWC recordings should be activated prior to contact with a citizen, or as soon as safely possible thereafter, and continue recording until the contact is concluded, or otherwise terminated in line with policy.
If an officer fails to activate a BWC, or fails to record the entire contact, the officer shall document the reasons for doing so.
The policy also details when a BWC shall not be used, such as non-work related activity or places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as locker rooms, dressing rooms or restrooms, for example.
Brownfield said his rule of thumb for activating a camera is whenever an officer is interacting with a citizen for any reason. He noted that some interactions can start out cordial but could quickly take a turn for the worse if the person starts to become belligerent.
“It is safer if you just keep it on until that contact is over. That is my rule of thumb and I would apply that as a safe measure,” Brownfield said.
The department has switched over to long-term storage of camera video to a cloud based system. Before that the department was trying to store everything locally. The servers used to store the file footage is totally dedicated to body cameras and their function and cannot be used for anything else.
How long video footage is stored is dependent upon the nature of the incident. It follows the same guidelines the department has in place for retention of public records.
“Depending on what it is determines how long we keep it,” Brownfield noted. “Certain levels of crimes have criteria that are assigned to it.”
As an example, he cited that traffic citations are not kept on file as long as an arrest incident. In the case of an officer-involved shooting, that camera footage would be kept much longer.
Englewood also has multiple traffic camera’s installed city-wide and that footage is only stored for about two weeks, unless something crime related is recorded. In that case the city downloads the footage and keeps it for as long as needed.
“With body cameras, there is some routine stuff that is recorded day-in and day-out that can go away fairly quickly,” Brownfield said. “Every time we have some type of enforcement contact with a citizen, sometimes it is fairly simple like someone asking an officer a question or a routine traffic accident, nobody is going to need that ten years from now. If anybody wanted it, we could always put it on an external drive to give to them.”
In the case of a media outlet requesting footage of an incident, Brownfield said that could be provided fairly quickly as long as it can be reviewed first to make sure that something needs to be redacted from it, like blurring out the face of someone not directly involved.
“The constant issue now is redaction,” Brownfield stated. “If we walk into somebody’s house and there is a person sitting over to the side that doesn’t live there, we can blur out her face so no one can see it. I recently talked to Dayton Police Chief Richard S. Biehl and one of his biggest concerns was how much staff time it was going to take to do that.”
Dayton employs approximately 350 officers. Brownfield noted that if every single officer was wearing a body camera and if the news media or anyone else is constantly asking them for copies, someone will have to sit down to review the footage to make sure there is nothing included that isn’t truly investigative material. That could include muting officers broadcasting a person’s Social Security number and name back to the dispatch center.
Since Englewood has a much smaller department of 20 officers, those issues are much easier to deal with.
“That kind of information needs to be redacted, but there is software for that, which makes it a little bit easier,” Brownfield said. “But it still means somebody is going to have to touch every one of those files.”
He said that the news media fairly regularly asks for access to camera files. Sgt. Mike Lang is the department’s media liaison. He would review the file requested to make sure that anything in the file can be released and then sends it to the news outlet. Sometimes the media outlet is in such a hurry to obtain footage that Englewood will play the footage for them on screen so that they can use their TV cameras to record it in the police department.
Englewood employs two IT (information technology) personnel that ensures that everything works – the functionality of equipment. They are not in charge of the record keeping.
Brownfield also pointed out that all of his officers love having body cameras.
“There is not one that fusses about it all because it protects us completely,” Brownfield said. “It has been a saving grace for a lot of complaints that we used to get. One thing that used to happen a lot is that someone would say, ‘I want to file a complaint against that officer, but if you make my ticket go away I will make my complaint go away.’ With body cameras I invite them to come in to watch their encounter with the officer together to see if their complaint is backed up.”
He noted that since body cameras came in to play the department no longer gets complaints.
“We just don’t get complaints because everybody knows we use body cameras,” he said. “We also have surveillance cameras around town (65) and that has really tamped down a lot of conflicts because we are accurately recording the event and we don’t have to rely on people who turn on their cell phone camera at the end of the event claiming that this is the entire event. We actually record it from the beginning until the end.”
He noted that a lot of the recent public incidents making the news across the nation are only cell phone videos that document the end of a police encounter and not the entire event.
In addition to body cameras, Englewood cruisers are equipped with two in-car cameras. One is a panoramic camera that records a bigger view and the other one has a turret that can be pointed where needed to capture a full view of anything that is going on.
Brownfield did note that there are limitations to what body cameras actually capture. If a scuffle breaks out the camera view is obscured or if the officer turns away from the subject that person is no longer in view.
Most of the time when an officer is dealing with accidents or cases of someone driving under the influence, that interaction is taking place between two cruisers facing the scene so that everything that is taking place is being recorded.
“I am a big supporter of body cameras,” Brownfield stated. “I think most chiefs are, if not all. The only limitation I have ever heard is the expense. For bigger cities that have a police force of considerable size, they are going to be spending a large amount of money on storage and on staff assigned to reviewing footage. Here it is pretty streamlined. I trust that Sgt. Lang will provide whatever is necessary and the media has never had any problems with the footage that we give them.”
Now that the technology exists, Brownfield has found that the courts ask for footage because it helps end a lot of discussions. If a defendant is claiming an officer did something objectionable during an arrest, the footage quickly puts and end to that claim.
“If you don’t have a video the court is disappointed because it becomes a ‘he said, she said’ situation and even though cops are supposed to win that discussion, this guarantees cops will win that discussion because there is no doubt about what you see in a recorded encounter,” Brownfield said.
He added that the city council and city manager were firmly in support of the move to obtain body worn cameras.
“We kind of blazed the trail of being the first department in the county to have body cameras, which meant we had to go through that initial ‘beta testing’ as a I call it, kind of figuring out what works and what doesn’t work and by reviewing vendors to see which would be the best for us,” Brownfield said.
He recently received an inquiry from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office to see what camera system Englewood uses.
“Because of the amount of time we’ve been using them, six years now, we have found a product that works for us consistently and we like it, why reinvent the wheel?” he said.
“The brightest point in all this was how easily it was accepted by our officers. You always think that there is going to be some resistance because you worry that somebody thinks that they are going to get caught doing something they are not supposed to do,” Brownfield added. “Obviously they weren’t worried about it because nobody was doing anything that they didn’t want to be caught doing. That was a blessing that we didn’t have any of those issues.”
He noted that everything turns out exactly the way the department wants it to, because everything the officers do is being documented that supports their version of a story. As a result, very few cases wind up being contested in court at all – including shoplifting – which accounts for 26 percent of crime in Englewood.
Brownfield strongly encourages all police departments to obtain body cameras. He said that if the expense is a problem that he would hope that a program could be developed to help cities that don’t have the money to buy them to get a subsidy or a grant to help purchase them.
“I think it’s a game changer… I really do,” Brownfield stressed. “If everybody had them, a lot of these circumstances that have been partially recorded would be fully recorded. That kind of transparency or scrutiny could be viewed by all, not just by some. It’s all public record eventually. What we are trying to be cognizant of is that we don’t want to release stuff until it is appropriate to release.”
That means if a case is still under investigation or under review by a grand jury, withholding footage to prevent tainting a grand jury is appropriate.