Crime

Police body cameras could clarify and complicate

Sgt. Chad Wilderdyke of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department wears a body camera on his chest.
Sgt. Chad Wilderdyke of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department wears a body camera on his chest. The Kansas City Star

The body camera Chad Wilderdyke wears on duty each day is, in essence, as much a part of his Clay County sheriff’s deputy uniform as his gun, radio and stun gun.

“It’s an invaluable tool. I love having the video,” said Wilderdyke, a sergeant and a field supervisor. “I would not want to work without one.”

Wearing the body camera has allowed him to refute allegations, he said.

“It has exonerated me,” the officer said. “Wearing it has never gotten me into trouble.”

Wilderdyke is one of hundreds of local law enforcement officers equipped with body cameras. President Barack Obama now wants to increase that number. He’s asked Congress to help pay for 50,000 more body cameras for local police and law enforcement.

The president made the push after nationwide and sometimes violent protests over a grand jury’s decision late last month not to indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old.

A host of civil rights organizations have demanded that every officer wear a body camera even as some warn technology promises no easy fix for confrontations between civilians and police.

“Body cameras are not the be-all, end-all solution to the issues we are facing as a country right now,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “Effective policing comes down to trust between law enforcement and the people that they serve.… Cameras are simply used as a tool to gather information and evidence. How we use that information and evidence is the true test.”

Many local law enforcement officials who equip patrol vehicles with dashboard-mounted cameras said they gladly welcome federal dollars to help pay for the body cameras.

But use of the technology could yield unintended consequences.

Could, for instance, footage from the cameras violate the privacy of the people who come in contact with police, often at the most vulnerable moments of their lives? Would witnesses be reluctant to share information with cops if they saw them as videographers? How easy will it be to train officers about, for instance, when to record? Might changing technology complicate the use of the tiny recording devices?

“I am all for cameras,” said Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté. “It is something that has … been needed for years, but we just need to make sure we are not just overreacting without doing our homework first.”

Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package that includes money for the cameras, with state and local governments picking up about half the cost.

Numerous Kansas City area police and law enforcement agencies already equip their patrol and field officers with body cameras. Others are weighing their options. Wichita police announced last week that the department will outfit all of its patrol officers with body cameras by the end of 2015.

Greg Dyer with Digital Ally, a Lenexa-based manufacturer of body cameras, said the demand has rapidly increased in recent years, long before the Ferguson shooting.

“The future of law enforcement is a body camera for every officer, just like a handgun or any other tools that they use,” Dyer said.

The camera Wilderdyke wears easily fastens to his shirt and looks like a chunk of dark chocolate. It’s attached by a wire to a battery pack. Each is about the size of a deck of playing cards. Wilderdyke keeps the battery in his chest pocket.

“If I am responding to a situation where I come up on a fight in progress, I turn my emergency equipment on,” Wilderdyke said. “I don’t have to worry about reaching down and turning my body camera on. It is already turned on.”

Bad guys and cops would likely behave better, he said, knowing that they are being recorded.

Yet body cameras raise concerns about privacy. For example, would it be appropriate for an officer to record an interview with a victim who had been sexually assaulted or when an officer responds to an incident involving allegations of domestic violence?

It also remains unclear what happens if a resident requests a video copy of police footage recorded inside a neighbor’s home, Forté said.

As long as police departments have clear policies on how and when they will be used, the public and police officers are better off with these police cameras, said Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. Video, after all, isn’t subject to the frailty of memory or bias the way witness recollections can be.

But there also are concerns that witnesses may be less likely to talk with officers if their conversations are being recorded.

“There are so many things that could backfire on you for trying to do the right thing,” Forté said. “It is a dangerous piece of equipment to have without having strict policies prior to implementation.”

Engaging the public and making people aware of the department’s policy on the use of body cameras would be essential, he said.

Another challenge for many departments would be the need to expand video storage, maintain the equipment and respond to records requests, said Liberty Police Chief James Simpson. He said departments also would need to factor in repair and replacement costs.

“There is a lot more devil in the details than what everybody thinks,” Simpson said, “than just slapping on a camera and start recording everything.”

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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