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Ferguson brings cops' body cams into focus

Ferguson brings cops' body cams into focus


Michael Brown's mom and dad didn't ask the grand jury to reconsider after it decided last week not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, cop who shot their unarmed son to death.

They didn't seek revenge. They didn't demand justice.

Instead, they implored Americans to help put body cameras on each of the nearly half-million law enforcement officers in the United States.

The idea won't get much of a fight in Lincoln, but actually pinning them on the vests of officers and deputies might pose a challenge.

Many major players here -- police, the Lancaster County sheriff, the ACLU of Nebraska -- like the idea of equipping cops with body cameras especially after Brown's Aug. 9 shooting death ignited protests and outrage about race and deadly force across the country.

But local public safety officials say concerns about technology and privacy could delay how fast they get them.


Consider the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department ahead of the curve. All of its sergeants and street officers -- about 25 of the 32 sworn officers -- wear body cams while on duty.

It's been that way since 2007, when Chief Owen Yardley wanted to give officers on foot, bike and Segway the same checks and protections as those in cruisers.

"We wanted to make sure everybody was documented as much as possible," he said.

Police and everyone else are more documented these days because of the proliferation of cellphones.

On New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, California, a passerby captured BART Officer Johannes Mehserle shoot Oscar Grant while the 22-year-old was lying facedown. The footage led a jury to convict Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter.

And last year in Omaha, a witness filmed an Omaha police officer throw Octavius Johnson to the ground and then strike him repeatedly. The footage, posted on YouTube, also showed half a dozen officers storm into a nearby house, where they knocked a woman in a wheelchair to the ground. The police seized a memory card with a separate video shot by Johnson's brother.

The fallout led the Omaha department to fire six of the 32 officers who responded to the scene. Prosecutors filed evidence tampering and obstruction charges against some officers resulting with the ACLU of Nebraska filing a lawsuit.

But, Yardley said, people standing on the sidelines generally don't whip out their phones until a drama has started, so viewers see only a snippet of what happened.

He wants to capture the full picture, at least the one seen by his officers.

"What better vantage point than from the officers themselves who are in the mix of it?" UNL Police Sgt. John Backer said while working security at the high school state football championships at Memorial Stadium.

"Not having one is not an option," said Backer, a 12-year veteran with UNLPD.

Backer is a supervisor and said it's great to pull up body cam video when someone files a complaint or something goes wrong.

"That certainly beats interviewing four to five people and getting six different accounts," he said. "Not that people have ulterior motives. ... People just record things differently in their mind.

"When you're looking for a complete and accurate account of what happened, this is your best bet."

The cameras not only capture when things go bad, they can stop them from going bad in the first place, Yardley said.

"If you know your actions are going to be viewed by others, you're going to act a little more appropriately," Yardley said. "That applies to both sides."


More than 1,200 law enforcement agencies are using Taser body cameras, triple the number from a year ago, Taser spokeswoman Sydney Siegmeth said. Moreover, the number of major cities testing out Taser's body cams in trials tripled between June and October.

The Nebraska State Patrol started wearing body cams this year, spokeswoman Deb Collins said. The patrol spent $11,700 in grant funding to buy five cameras that troopers use during investigations, interviews and undercover work.

The patrol's foray into body cams comes five years after it spent $1.7 million to upgrade its 370 cruiser cams from VHS to digital, Collins said.

The city of Rialto, California, population 100,000, equipped about half of its 115 officers with Taser body cameras for 2012-13. During that time, officers used force 59 percent less and complaints against them dropped 88 percent, according to a study.

Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong said he sees the benefits of body cams, and thinks his officers eventually will get them.

But he also has concerns: Would a camera scare off rape victims, who are already reluctant to report crimes to police? Would the video be subject to public records requests, forcing victims to watch their tearful accounts on the 10 o'clock news? Would would-be burglars be able to ask for footage that could allow them an inside look at houses they might want to target? Could a nosy neighbor make a public records request just to get a look inside a nearby home?

"How much do you open up another person's life to the public who's been victimized?" Peschong asked. "We don't really want to provide the opportunity or venue for people to find out what somebody's inner sanctum looks like.

"There's a whole gamut of things that really have to be seriously thought through."

Close-up video shots of victims, suspects and witnesses could be used with facial-recognition software by others long after the footage is taken, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report released in September titled "Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program."

The report concluded that police should give body cam videos to people if they ask for it, except in certain circumstances. They're public records, and doing so shows departments are open about how they interact with the community.

American Civil Liberties Union officials have some of the same worries, and they also want to protect the rights of officers who are on break or talking with their spouses during private phone calls, ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said.

In the end, the ACLU, often an opponent of government surveillance, supports cops wearing body cams, she said.

"The ACLU strongly comes down in favor of the technology because there is such potential for great harm if the police are abusing their power," Miller said.

But top brass need to establish clear rules of engagement so officers know when the cameras need to be on and off, Miller said. Departments also need to spell out punishments for cops who abuse their access to footage of suspects' and victims' most vulnerable moments.

"There's always the possibility a bad employee would take the images from a body camera and make a sort of 'Candid Camera' blooper list," she said.

Strong policies about when cops need to use their cameras helped in Daytona Beach, Florida, according to the Justice Department report.

Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood made an officer with a checkered past wear a camera, the report says. During one incident, the camera went blank, then flickered back. The officer blamed a malfunction, and the department gave him another. When he went to arrest a woman a week later, it shut off again. The police department investigated and determined the officer shut it down on purpose.

"Our policy says that if you turn it off, you're done," Chitwood said. "He resigned the next day."


The Lincoln Police Department's four bicycle cops have body cameras that cost $850 to $900 each, but they're a fraction of the roughly 240-officer police force, Peschong said. The department got them late in the last decade not to record more video, but to give the bike cops the same ability as their cruiser-bound counterparts. They aren't required to wear the cameras and would have to turn over their footage only if it showed an arrest or something that could be useful evidence.

And it can be useful in letting a judge or jury know what happened, say, at a bar early Saturday morning when someone's drunk, cursing and tries to take a swing at a cop.

Without a camera, those passing judgment have to rely on an officer's words. Meanwhile, they're looking at a defendant who's sober, wearing a suit, gotten a haircut and saying he would never do something like that.

"This gave the officers ... a tool to say, 'Judge, if you'd like to see the video, Your Honor,'" Peschong said.

But equipping LPD fully would run about $96,000 for Taser body cams, which cost $399 each -- $144,000 to give each officer a pair of Oakley-like glasses outfitted with a camera.

And it's not just the upfront cost. Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady estimates the cost of a body cam program at $385,000 a year: Maintaining the program includes $240,000 to store and manage data, $65,000 for a technician to oversee it and $80,000 to replace one-third of the cameras each year as they break, he estimated.

Police departments can handle a lot of that work through Taser by spending $15 to $55 per month per officer to use, Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said. If they go with the higher end -- $158,000 annually -- Taser upgrades cameras and docking stations every 2 1/2 years.

Peschong didn't dwell on money when he talked about body cameras. Instead, he talked about setting up the behind-the-scenes infrastructure that would serve as a foundation for the program, letting technology improve, making sure officers are taught how to use body cams and setting up strong guidelines governing their use.

"But you gotta go slow. They have their place," he said. "You just can't go and jump off into this."

Peschong is happy to watch other departments learn from their successes and mistakes. Meanwhile, the quality of the cameras will go up and the prices will go down.

"Why invest a whole lot of money when you can let some others go through all of this testing?" Peschong asked.

Like a lot of departments, LPD experimented with dashboard cameras in cruisers. In the mid-1990s, the department put cameras in 20 to 25 cruisers, said Casady, who was police chief from 1994 to 2011.

By the end of the decade, LPD was at a crossroads: Put more cameras in more cruisers, maintain the ones it already had or scrap the entire project, Casady said in 2012.

It was clear then that digital systems would make their VHS and DVD counterparts obsolete, and the older technology required a lot of work, he said. Sergeants had to put new cassettes in at the beginning of every shift and take them out to maintain the chain of custody.

They decided to let the VHS stock go away during most of the next decade, and start from scratch.

“We didn’t want to invest in old technology,” Casady said.


Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner watched dashboard cameras as well, and he considers the 40 or so in his deputies' cruisers invaluable.

One was aimed at the house where deputies went to evict 64-year-old Doug DaMoude in late May. When deputies breached the door, he pointed a rifle at them. One grabbed the gun, and two others shot DaMoude four times, killing him.

Wagner said he'd never seen an officer-involved shooting caught on video before. It helped his deputies learn about how to handle similar situations, and it also led a Lancaster County grand jury to clear the deputies in DaMoude's death, the sheriff said.

"This is absolutely unprecedented in my career," he added. "It helped us all understand."

So Wagner's game to do body cams, but only once they've proven themselves. His deputies tried out two last year and found they shut off prematurely and wouldn't delete footage even after it had uploaded, preventing them from recording more. They relayed those problems to the manufacturer.

This year, the same company gave Wagner three more cameras to test. The deputies who tested them reported improvement, the sheriff said, but he's still not comfortable with scaling up.

They need to be reliable, Wagner said. The public expects to see video when they complain about a deputy's actions. But technology can fail or an could officer forget to turn the camera on in the heat of the moment.

"People think you're trying to hide something," Wagner said.

The decision to implement body-worn cameras should not be entered into lightly, according to the federal Justice Department report, which said: "Once an agency goes down the road of deploying body-worn cameras -- and once the public comes to expect the availability of video records -- it will become increasingly difficult to have second thoughts or to scale back a body-worn camera program."


Peschong and Wagner might want to pick Owen Yardley's brain. The UNL police chief has spent the past seven years tinkering with different models, working through kinks in protocol and upgrading to a digital system that marries the video from dashboard and body cams.

The department's first cameras sat above officers' ears, held in place by a headpiece that looked like inverted sunglasses. Officers experimented with shoulder-mounted cameras, but found they got in the way of their seat belts and coats.

And when they did an active-shooter exercise in 2011, they discovered the head-mounted version resulted in shaky video.

"Your head's moving continuously, so it's just flying back and forth," he said.

UNL officers don't record their entire shifts, Yardley said. Officers have the discretion to flip the switch. But the camera should be on if they're interviewing a witness or suspect in a criminal investigation, or pulling someone over for speeding.

Body cams are just the most recent development in an endless process, Yardley said. When he started policing 30 years ago, he bought a voice recorder with his own money. He wasn't the only one; a lot of younger officers did the same because they wanted to make sure they accurately captured what suspects and witnesses were saying.

Then came cameras in interview rooms. Dashboard cams. Digital everything.

Now: body cams.

"It's just an evolutionary process," Yardley said, "and this is where we are today."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7395 or On Twitter @LJSEdwards.


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