On Nov. 28, ThisWeek published a story outlining which central Ohio police forces are using body-worn video cameras and why they are using the devices and other agencies are not. This in-depth story focuses on the Whitehall Division of Police – one of the 10 law-enforcement agencies using the technology – to illustrate the practical and technical use of body cameras.
Before he steps toward the vehicle he has pulled over with his cruiser's flashing blue lights, Whitehall Division of Police Lt. Brian Smith already has pressed a button on the small, black box attached to the front of his uniform.
No two traffic stops are the same, and it is the body-worn video camera on Smith's uniform that will record whatever happens when he approaches the vehicle and interacts with the driver.
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"Once I realize I'm stopping someone, even before I hit my lights, (I turn on the body camera) in case something goes sideways," Smith said.
On this December morning, none of the several traffic stops made by Smith, including this one, resulted in any situations that would require a review of the video.
Within 30 days, the footage will be gone when it is overwritten by new recordings. Only those flagged for archiving as evidence will be kept.
Whitehall is among the 10 law-enforcement agencies in central Ohio that were using body cameras when ThisWeek surveyed 24 departments in November, and it was among the first to start doing so about 18 months ago.
The city decided to "lead rather than follow" a growing national trend in policing, Deputy Chief Dan Kelso said.On the record
Whitehall police in July 2018 equipped all officers in uniform or on patrol with button-activated WatchGuard body cameras.
Whitehall has 47 full-time sworn officers and 14 auxiliary sworn officers, and the cameras are assigned to officers each shift, Kelso said.
When not in use by officers, the body cameras are stored in a charging dock at the police station. While charging, the videos stored on the camera are downloaded to a server.
During the checkout process each shift, the operating system assigns a number and the officer's name to the body camera, Smith said.
When using the cameras, after every activation, officers select a tag for each recorded segment. The codes include everything from a traffic stop that resulted in either a warning or a citation to an arrest; the codes make the footage easier to find later and determine how long a video is maintained per records-retention policies, Smith said.
"When we started this, being that we were one of the first in central Ohio with body cams, we really had no guide on best practice," Kelso said. "It seemed that everyone across the country was doing it different."
For Whitehall, traffic warnings and accidents, assistance to motorists and tests were kept 30 days, traffic citations and suspicious persons and vehicles were 90 days; domestic violence and assaults, drug charges, OVIs and interviews were one year; and arrests and pursuits were two years.
"However, we have found this system to be inadequate and confusing," Kelso said. "A lot of the tags cross over. As an example, if I arrest someone for DUI, is it 'arrest' or 'DUI'? It depends on the officer. That was clearly a problem. We have since decided to simplify the system, while in turn making it more adequate for court."
As a result, he said, Whitehall is adopting a system similar to the one used by the Columbus Division of Police: "evidence" is kept two years and "nonevidence" is kept 90 days.
"If an officer takes any enforcement action or (an) enforcement action is likely in the future due to the nature of the call, the officer will tag it 'evidence,' Kelso said. "This will include anything with tickets, arrests, etc. Any other calls (that) won't generate charges (disputes, assists, welfare checks, tests, warnings, etc.) will be marked 'nonevidence.'">> Body cameras finding footage in central Ohio <<
Videos for such crimes as murder and homicide would be retained permanently with a digital case file and hard copies, he said.
Kelso said the division has planned to make the change to the new system by the start of 2020 after some technological logistics problems are solved.
"The problem is when we wanted to make the change earlier this year (in 2019), our IT department did some research and found we did not have enough storage space to accomplish this," he said Dec. 23. "Essentially, we needed to almost double our video server. It took some time, but we were allocated the funds, the new system was built and installed about a week ago."
Whitehall officers are instructed to activate the cameras during almost every encounter, Smith said. Officers typically report that body cameras are in use when communicating with dispatchers, he said.
"There are only very rare instances in which we choose not to use our cameras," Smith said.
Exceptions are when entering the residences where someone is experiencing a medical emergency and instances when victims of a sexual assault are describing an assailant, he said.
"There is no value in recording that, and we respect that," Smith said.
Through its surveys in November, ThisWeek learned all the central Ohio police departments with body cameras had policies guiding their use. The policies were specific to each agency, but most were similar or even identical when it came to best practices and state law.
Although body cameras are not required by Ohio law, they are subject to it.
In January 2018, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill that specified police body-camera recordings are public records, with some privacy exceptions.
That measure, House Bill 425, became effective in April and is significant because it made police body-camera footage a public record for the first time said David Moser, an associate attorney with Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor in Columbus.
"That has never been explicitly stated before," said Moser, who often works with local law-enforcement agencies and tries to keep tabs on new legislation.
Exceptions to the statute, Moser said, primarily involve privacy rights, including the ones Smith noted.
Examples of protected information include children's identities or the identities of victims of sex offenses or domestic violence, confidential medical details and the interiors of private residences or private businesses if no extenuating circumstances are involved.
Whitehall's policy spells out certain situations in which the cameras should be used, though the policy says it "is not intended to describe every possible situation in which the portable recorder should be used, although there are many situations where its use is appropriate. Members may activate the recorder any time the member believes it would be appropriate or valuable to record an incident."
Prescribed situations in the policy are:
* All enforcement and investigative contacts, including stops and field-interview situations.
* Traffic stops, including but not limited to traffic violations, stranded-motorist assistance and all crime interdiction stops.
* Self-initiated activity in which an officer normally would notify the dispatch center.
* All calls for service that involve citizen interaction.
"Members should remain sensitive to the dignity of all individuals being recorded and exercise sound discretion to respect privacy by discontinuing recording whenever it reasonably appears to the member that such privacy may outweigh any legitimate law-enforcement interest in recording," Whitehall's policy says. "Requests by members of the public to stop recording should be considered using this same criterion. Recording should resume when privacy is no longer at issue, unless the circumstances no longer fit the criteria for recording.
"At no time is a member expected to jeopardize his/her safety in order to activate a portable recorder or change the recording media. However, the recorder should be activated in situations described above as soon as reasonably practicable."On the street
Body cameras capture what an officer sees in real time and provide an account of every moment of a police encounter in contrast to the many instances in which people see only the conclusion.
For example, during a ThisWeek ridealong Dec. 11, Whitehall officers were summoned to a discount store on South Hamilton Road by an employee who had told police a repeat shoplifter was concealing watches and other property inside her coat.
After waiting nearly 30 minutes for the woman to leave the store, officers chose to confront the woman and issue a no-trespassing order against her.
Because the woman had not left the store, she could not be arrested for theft, but her suspicious actions of concealing merchandise was sufficient to serve her with the no-trespassing order, Smith said.
The woman said she intended to pay for the merchandise, but officers told her the store's employees wanted her off the property and that she could be arrested if she returned.
Despite the lack of an arrest, the body cameras recorded the entire encounter because officers never know how an incident will turn.
During a similar situation several weeks earlier, Whitehall officers had to use an electroshock weapon to apprehend a woman who attempted to flee in a vehicle after assaulting a loss-prevention officer at a retail store, according to police reports.>> By the numbers: body-camera breakdown <<
In addition to preserving evidence, body cameras can help officers assess their performance and improve, Kelso said.
"(They) are contributing to excellence in policing (and) have been a huge contributor to that, outside on the job we are doing and inside when we are evaluating, learning and getting better at our jobs," he said.
They also have exonerated officers from unfounded or false complaints and allow prosecutors and juries to see the conduct of suspects, Kelso said.
Body-camera footage recently exonerated Whitehall officer Noah Fullerton.
"It saved me and proved the (other) person was wrong," he said. "Some people just don't tell the truth."
Fullerton said he had faced a complaint from a person who had claimed he had taken property from a vehicle he was searching after the driver was arrested.
Using the camera had a learning curve, Fullerton said, "but it has become second nature now."
"Just about every citizen we contact in every situation has a camera," Kelso said. "It only makes sense that we have one, too."
ThisWeek staff members Sarah Sole and Neil Thompson contributed to this story.