Worthington City Council approves $135,000 for body-worn police cameras

Stephen Borgna
ThisWeek group

The Worthington Division of Police is expected to join multiple police agencies around central Ohio that are using body-worn cameras after an appropriation by Worthington City Council. 

After tabling the issue more than nine months ago, council members approved a $135,000 appropriation for a camera program May 17 – an increase from the $55,000 appropriation proposed in July 2020.

“We’ve had an extensive amount of time spent ... in which the council was educated on what body cameras were about, how law enforcement uses them, what are the values, what are the trends and what are the safeguards that have to be in place,” council President Bonnie Michael said. “And after having a thorough discussion, I think the council felt comfortable enough to go forward with the appropriation.”

This is one of the button-activated WatchGuard body cameras that all Whitehall Division of Police officers in uniform or on patrol have worn since July 2018. Worthington City Council on May 17 approved a $135,000 appropriation to fund the acquisition of 38 WatchGuard body cameras for all Worthington Division of Police officers. The division's body-worn-camera program is expected to be implemented in the fall.

The $55,000 proposal was designed to fund cameras for 22 patrol officers, but the newest appropriation will fund cameras for use by all 34 full-time officers and five part-time officers in the department, according to police Chief Robert Ware. 

“After reflecting on some of the incidents around the country and the pros and cons, we made the adjustment to ensure that every officer had an assigned camera,” he said. 

The appropriation will fund the purchase of 38 Motorola WatchGuard body cameras, as well as cloud-based storage capabilities, maintenance and replacement plans and the associated software and hardware, Ware said.

Ware said the next steps are procurement of the equipment from the vendor and training the officers with the equipment, with implementation of the program slated for the fall. 

Ware said the division's policy will require that uniformed officers who are expected to take enforcement actions activate their cameras. Examples of these situations include traffic and citizen stops and responses to an incident from dispatchers.

But officers also will have the discretion to turn the cameras on when they think there’s a “law-enforcement benefit” to recording, Ware said. 

Ware expressed support for the program, saying the cameras will be of benefit to the public and to the department.

“We’ve seen expressions of support from the officers, from City Council and from members of the public," he said. "It’s another tool to capture an event that occurs. There’s benefit to the public and transparency and documenting the activities of the officer. It’s also a benefit to the officers because it captures the entirety of the event. 

“Sometimes we’ll see a viral video or a cellphone clip, and it captures the end of an interaction. But it doesn’t show you what led up to the moment that the cellphone camera was activated or the video was taken by a bystander. This allows the public to see the entirety of the event.”

Ware also said the cameras will provide a training element for officers.

“It allows us to go back and look after the fact and critique the activities of the officer, look for ways to improve communication skills or improve their officer-safety tactics,” he said. “So there’s a huge training benefit here where we can constantly analyze our actions and look for ways to improve upon."

Body cameras have been a focal part of recent officer-involved shootings in central Ohio, including when Columbus Division of Police officer Adam Coy shot and killed 47-year-old Andre Hill while responding to a nonemergency disturbance call Dec. 22 and when Columbus officer Nicholas Reardon shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant as she brandished a knife while lunging at a woman.

Brian Steel, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9 that represents 28 police agencies around central Ohio, said body-camera programs "are costly to taxpayers but, in my opinion, (are) well worth the investment to ensure transparency."

They also aid law-enforcement agencies in their duties, he said.

Steel said body cameras are not an end-all, be-all asset, but they’ve demonstrated a high rate of success when disputing allegations of officer misconduct. 

“The Fraternal Order of Police completely supports the body-worn cameras, and we encourage their usage,” Steel said. "These have been around for a while, they’re pretty proven (from) an administrative side. But in terms of citizen complaints, they’re proven to exonerate officers from frivolous complaints an overwhelming majority of the time.” 

According to a 2019 Columbus Division of Police Internal Affairs Bureau report, 77.9% of citizen-alleged misconduct cases against Columbus City officers in 2018 were unfounded, exonerated or withdrawn and 80.3% of allegations in 2019 were disproven, unfounded, exonerated or withdrawn with the help of video footage. 

This is compared to 73% of allegations in 2018 that were unfounded, exonerated or withdrawn and 70.9% of allegations in 2019 that were disproven, unfounded, exonerated or withdrawn without any type of video, according to the reports. 

These cases included 48 allegations of use of force and 13 allegations of bias-based policing in 2018, and 41 use-of-force and nine bias-based policing complaints in 2019, according to the reports. 

2020 data regarding these incidents was not available yet, Steel said. 

Steel said body cameras also have proven to be a useful tool in court. 

“In regards to prosecution ... they’re really a slam dunk,” he said. “When you go to court and you show that video in front of a jury or a judge; our conviction rates are the highest they’re ever been because of cameras.”

Many central Ohio police departments have been using body-worn cameras for a few years, including the cities of Columbus, Dublin, Groveport, Powell, Reynoldsburg, Westerville and Whitehall; Delaware and Union counties; and Ohio State University.

The Hilliard Division of Police is an example of another agency poised to start using the devices for the first time. 

Steel said Worthington is one of the last agencies represented by the union to adopt body cameras. 

Funding often is the main obstacle preventing implementation of these programs, he said.

"The only thing that stops some cities from getting them, why it takes so long, is just money," Steel said. "The taxpayers elected council (members) to appropriate their funds, and if they think that's where it should go, (then) yeah, we love it."

sborgna@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSteve