Tuesday, December 8, 2015

To protect and serve

The media seems filled with stories about police misconduct these days. Perhaps the rarity of this kind of behavior makes it news, and the 24 hour news cycle ensures that all incidents are reported nationwide. The actions of a very few bad apples give all law enforcement officers(LEOs)a black eye.

Goochland deputies, like LEOs everywhere, never know what their shift will bring. Simple traffic stops can turn deadly, or a domestic dispute can escalate from shouting to shooting with little warning. They must have the tools to deal with whatever they encounter in a safe and effective manner.

Those tools take many forms; training and equipment top the list.

Goochland Sheriff James L. Agnew made a presentation about the use of body cameras to the Board of Supervisors at its December 1 meeting.
He had discussed the matter with Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1, and Manuel Alvarez, Jr. District 2 about a year ago. That led to a field test of several brands of body cams this year.

Initially, said Agnew, he was skeptical of the value of the devices. Following research on the matter, and a trial of body cams by county deputies, he believes they have a place in law enforcement.

Agnew said that, thanks to television, citizens, and juries seem to believe that forensic evidence--especially DNA and fingerprints--provides fast and irrefutable resolution of crimes.

“There isn’t always DNA, there aren’t always fingerprints,” said Agnew. “Crimes are still solved using plain old gumshoe investigative work.”
But, conceded Agnew, cameras are a part of our world. He played training videos to illustrate how perspective can alter interpretations of “facts” recorded by dash mounted cameras.

In one instance, a camera mounted on a police cruiser seemed to indicate that a LEO drew his weapon on a man who had simply been pulled over for a traffic violation. The footage from the officer’s body cam, however, recorded that, when he got close to the car, he saw a pistol in the front seat. The incident was safely resolved.

Earlier this year, said Agnew, deputies tested three different models of body cams to see how they performed in real world conditions.
Before the trial began, a simple use policy was put into place. The cameras must be manually switched on. Battery life is limited, and routine interactions do not need to be recorded. One of the factors that must be considered when deploying body cameras is data storage.

Agnew said that using servers is expensive and time consuming. A cloud based storage system, similar to that used by the county, seems to be a better solution. Deputies will be able to review their cloud footage on smart phones, but cannot save or edit it. The footage will automatically be deleted from the cloud after a predetermined period of time, probably 60 days.

Should footage of an incident be deemed important, the deputy would tag it for indefinite retention. Deletion from the cloud is automatic, as is upload. Using a physical server would entail deputy overtime to manually download video of their shifts.

Body cams have a limited range of vision. While they provide information about a particular situation, some details might be lost. To illustrate this point, Agnew played footage of a LEO interacting with a man waving a knife. The placement of the camera on the officer cut off the top half of the image. However, the video did show enough of the episode to support the actions taken by the LEO.

The cameras also aid in gathering information at crime scenes. Body cams provide another layer of transparency to reinforce trust between the public and LEOs. The cameras see, and record, things better in low light conditions than the naked eye.

Data from law enforcement agencies around the nation, said Agnew, indicates that the use of body cams has reduced the number of complaints—people tend to behave better when they know their actions are being filmed.

Then Agnew got to the bottom line-deployment cost of body cams. After some trial and error, a shoulder mounted Axon Flex Body Camera was selected for use by 38 Goochland Deputies. Each unit costs $599. The total first year cost for all of the associated bits and pieces--including $1,188 per deputy for cloud storage-- was $64,386.

The useful life of one of these units is about two years, said Agnew. He added that sometimes the cameras, or some of their components break, which will add additional expense.

Although Agnew still has some reservations about the use of body cams, he believes that their use in Goochland helps more than harms local law enforcement. He also advocated deploying them before they are mandated by the state or federal government to get ahead of the curve.

Goochland, said Agnew in response to a query from Alvarez, does not have car cameras, because they are expensive and prone to malfunction.
Lascolette suggested that body cameras be included in the Sheriff’s budget for further discussion early next year.

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