Camera tells story for cops

Sean C. Morgan

Act like an idiot – cursing, yelling and carrying on –and guess what? If a police officer responds, a jury may share the moment.

If someone complains about an officer, his or her behavior will be clear to administrators and potentially outside observers.

That’s because Sweet Home police officers are recording video and audio of nearly every contact between them and members of the public.

The Police Department on July 1 made it mandatory for officers to carry and use high-definition cameras, said Sgt. Jeff Lynn, a 12-year veteran of law enforcement. The department had experimented with different cameras for a couple of months prior. Lynn believes Sweet Home is the first department in the county to make the use of the cameras mandatory.

“Do you think you should be driving?” a police officer asked a woman in one of the videos.

“No,” she replied. “I’m emotional. I had two Coors Lights.”

The officer asked her if she thought alcohol was affecting her driving.

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

The officer recorded her field sobriety tests, and now the video is stored on a hard drive at the Police Department.

In another video, a small dog had bitten a police officer. Lynn’s camera captured every moment of the following exchange with the angry owner of the dog.

No words in a report can describe the depth of the anger, the emotions that a video can portray, Lynn said.

“You can’t describe this to people,” Lynn said. “The atmosphere – you just can’t do it justice.”

The video and audio recordings provide that detail, he said. It also can help with citizen complaints.

“We get very few citizen complaints about the actions of our officers,” Lynn said. But in the past, when complaints were lodged, “video would have been able to clear it up instantly.”

The department already has one complaint about an officer’s attitude, said Police Chief Bob Burford. Viewing the video, the supervisors could see directly that there was no problem.

“You talk about a picture’s worth a thousand words,” Burford said. “A video’s worth a million.”

Lynn attaches the camera to his shirt and vest, he said, and that’s how most officers will wear the cameras.

The cameras are the size of a medium digital music player, smaller than iPhones and Androids, a little wider and taller than a business card, fitting easily into the palm of the hand.

It records high-definition video to a mini-SD card, which is copied to laptops in patrol cars and ultimately to a 3- or 4-terrabyte hard drive at the Police Department. The battery will hold a charge for about three hours, but officers keep it plugged into their laptops while in the patrol car.

Lynn said his team has not had a battery go dead yet.

Officers turn the camera on when responding to a call or conducting a traffic stop, he said. They won’t necessarily turn on a camera when a member of the public flags them down to talk or ask questions unless it becomes clear that it is regarding a criminal situation. The video function powers on when the unit’s emergency lights are activated, while the audio must be turned on manually.

“I haven’t found any drawbacks,” Lynn said.

Lynn proposed the concept and started testing it, Burford said. “I’ve got good reports some of the officers were a little reluctant at first.”

Even the skeptics are starting to see the value, Burford said.

Officers inform people involved in a call that they are recording, although officers do not need to do so immediately upon arrival at a scene, Burford said. Sometimes it is not practical to notify people immediately.

Lynn said he doesn’t have any real concerns about using the technology.

“We all understand we’re going to say something on camera and we’re going to look stupid once in a while,” he said, but it captures the nature of the job.

According to the department’s policy manual, the camera is expected to provide an unbiased record of an incident.

“It augments what they already do,” Lynn said. “It doesn’t replace the report or officers’ eyes and ears. I believe it’s the future. It’s not going to be long till everybody’s using them.”

Lynn’s biggest concern is the durability of the cameras. The department purchased 10 them for $130 each.

The department can probably stay ahead if it only has to replace a few of them each year, he said.

The cameras, along with a $200 hard drive, were purchased by funds from the Victim Impact Panel.

Another model costs $800 to $900 and is designed for use by law enforcement, Lynn said. Other departments outside of Oregon are using them, “but our budget is limited. We just don’t have $10,000 to pay for the program.”