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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 12:07 am

Police body cameras hit Springfield streets

Chief hopes footage offers evidence, accountability

Michael Gardner, a software specialist with the Springfield Police Department, downloads videos filmed by police officers demonstrating the department’s new body cameras.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

Body cameras aren’t a panacea, warns Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow. Still, he believes the cameras will reinforce the fact that his officers perform their duties well.

Winslow invited the media to preview the cameras last week and ask questions as the Springfield Police Department begins a measured deployment in the coming months. The cameras are part of the department’s efforts to build trust and accountability with the public as the nation struggles with violence between law enforcement and communities of color.

Even before the events of Ferguson, Missouri, in which a young black man was killed during a confrontation with a police officer and racial tension boiled over into violence as a result, Winslow and his team were looking at using body cameras within the Springfield Police Department. However, he says state law didn’t allow police to use body cameras at the time.

That changed in January of this year, when a new state law, passed in August 2015, took effect, setting rules for police departments using body cameras. The law also requires training for police on cultural sensitivity, independent investigation of officer-involved deaths and more.

The Springfield Police Department conducted a pilot project with eight officers, in which they tested different camera models and worked through potential problems.

At a press conference on July 27, Winslow and members of his team demonstrated their choice of the Axon Body 2, made by the TASER company which also produces stun guns. Winslow said the eight officers from the pilot project began wearing their body cameras full time on July 25, and the department will distribute cameras to the remaining 165 officers at a rate of about 25 officers every few weeks.

“We’re going to go slow because we do anticipate there could be some issues that pop up that we’re not familiar with, things that we maybe didn’t see in our pilot program,” he said.

The program will cost about $137,000 this year – roughly $65 per officer per month – and about $127,000 per year afterward. That cost includes the cameras, warranty repair service, free upgrades every two years and access to a secure online evidence storage system that prevents tampering.

The cameras are mounted to an officer’s uniform by strong magnets and are activated by tapping two times. With a 142-degree field of view, the cameras capture a picture similar to what humans see. Weatherproofing and a rugged exterior protect the cameras from damage.

 The cameras constantly record 30 seconds of video – but not audio – in a temporary buffer, so when an officer activates her or his camera, the extra 30 seconds are added to the beginning of the new video file. If an incident happens before the officer can activate their camera, the extra half-minute of footage may provide context that would otherwise be missing.

Each officer’s camera has a unique serial number, which is also digitally stamped on the video files. The files are encrypted on the camera and can’t be deleted except by a user with special permissions. When an officer finishes a shift, he or she places their camera in a charging cradle which uploads video files to a remote server. The server restricts access to the videos, even between officers. The videos are typically retained for 90 days, but videos which capture use of force or some other incident resulting in legal action will be saved for longer under court rules governing evidence. An officer can also flag a video they recorded to be saved in case of an ongoing investigation.

Springfield patrolman Chance Warnisher simulated a traffic stop for reporters to demonstrate the video quality and the cameras’ limits. The cameras are capable of recording in high-definition 1080p, but the Springfield police will record at the lower 720p because it costs less for storage and the lower resolution provides acceptable quality. Winslow noted that body cameras don’t replace in-car dashboard cameras, and he said the cameras don’t have night vision, which could invite controversy by exaggerating what an officer is able to see in a dark situation.

Video footage from traffic stops and other interactions between police and the public are subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, but videos may be redacted before release to protect privacy in certain circumstances. Officers may also turn off their cameras in certain situations to protect privacy, like when interviewing a victim of domestic abuse.

Winslow says there are still problems with the state body camera law, and many departments in Illinois aren’t adopting the cameras as a result. Winslow says some of the rules are ambiguous, but he and others in the department decided to move forward anyway. The Springfield Police Department is among the first in Illinois to adopt body cameras.

“We figure the only way to get the legislators to update the law is to have some real, hard data,” Winslow said.

Deputy chief Dyle Stokes says his officers are eager to start using the cameras.

“We all know we’re looking for something that’s going to protect the safety, the welfare and the integrity of us all – the department, our officers, the citizens,” Stokes said. “We truly believe a successful body-worn camera program can do exactly that.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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