The Pullman Police Department made body cameras a mandatory part of the uniform in April 2013. Almost two years later, body cameras are the talk of the nation.
Following the events in Ferguson, Missouri where a police officer was not indicted for shooting and killing an unarmed African-American man, the nation called for change. Some Americans are clamoring for body cameras across the country.
President Barak Obama is ready to start equipping police around the country with cameras, according to the Seattle Times. In a speech on December first, he asked Congress to fund 50,000 body cameras.
“The cameras are great, but the problem remains not everything will be caught on camera,” Pullman Police Commander Chris Tennant said.
A camera could fall off its mount or malfunction, the officer might block the camera’s view; there are a number of things that could go wrong, he said.
“People assume that just because we have the cameras that we’ll be able to see and understand everything in the videos, and that’s just not true,” Tennant said.
One big issue is the public thinks they know how police work is done or how police act based on the television shows they watch, Tennant said. T.V. is creating expectations officers can’t possibly live up to, he said.
Regardless of the general public causing headaches the media can be just as difficult, Tennant said.
“The media want videos right away, but the video is part of the evidence, so we can’t do that until the investigation is over.” He said. “The other problem is officer mounted body cameras don’t produce ‘T.V. quality video,’ just because you have a camera doesn’t mean the footage always turns out crystal clear.”
Tennant and Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins were pleasantly surprised at the officers willingness to wear the body cameras. Jenkins believes their willingness is a big reason the body cameras are such a big hit.
“We like wearing the cameras,” Pullman Police Officer Mike Crow said. “They protect us from false allegations, and they help our conviction rate because how can you argue with video evidence?”
In two different installments, the Pullman PD spent a total of $65,000 on all the equipment, Jenkins said. The cost includes mounting stations, the cameras, warranties on the cameras, and the software to store the footage.
“All of the sworn in staff, except for the commander and the chief, have a camera. Our three reserve officers and our three code enforcers have cameras,” Jenkins said. “We even have 36 extra cameras in case something unforeseen happens, such as a camera breaking.”
The police aren’t the only beneficiaries to the body cameras. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is completely true with the body cameras, Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy said.
“As a prosecutor, I can never have too much evidence. The body cameras have helped in numerous cases to either fully prosecute someone or exonerate them with the video evidence,” he said.
The body cameras don’t affect the majority of the cases the prosecutor’s office sees, Tracy said.
“We had one case recently where a man was reportedly on the street and intoxicated. It was suspected he had abused his wife as well,” he said.
When the officers began to approach the suspect, he put his hand behind his back, to act like he had a gun. The officers immediately start asking and commanding the suspect to show his hands, Tracy said.
“The officers had their guns in the ready position in front of them in case they needed their pistol. All of a sudden, the suspect ripped his hand from behind his back and pointed his fingers like a gun at the officers.
“Thankfully the officers recognize he wasn’t carrying a gun, and they didn’t shoot him,” Tracy said. “However, if the officers shot the suspect, the video would show they followed protocol and only shot in self-defense.”
The body camera phenomenon isn’t secluded to just Pullman. The New York City Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Spokane Police Department and Seattle Police Department have all started or will start pilot programs soon, according to the New York Times, LA Times, and KOMO News in Seattle.
“We’re hoping to start our pilot before 2014 ends,” said Seattle Police Department Lt. Bryan Grenon. “We’re planning on having two programs to run with two different body camera companies.”
Seattle PD will try out Taser and Vievu cameras for 90 days each before deciding what their next move will be, Grenon said.
“We’ve started developing our own policy from other agencies to prepare for possible pitfalls,” he said.
The body camera industry may not be perfect, but having them is only going to help law enforcement in the future, Jenkins said. Trust and safety are the main concern, so the more ways the police and the public can be protected only helps the two sides trust each other again.
List of Sources:
Chris Tennant: 509-334-0802 firstname.lastname@example.org
Gary Jenkins: 509-334-0802 email@example.com
Denis Tracy: 509-397-5317 firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Crow (Interviewed in person)
Bryan Grenon: 206-390-4937 email@example.com
Video Proof Interview Gary Jenkins
Public Records Request