While the Memphis Police Department grapples with the cost of body cameras and their data storage under intense scrutiny, the departments that cover Bartlett, Arlington and Lakeland already have some body cams in place and are continuing to expand their rollout.
Bartlett Police Department
Dash cameras have been on Bartlett Police Department (BPD) patrol cars for so long that officers have seen the cams evolve from videotapes to CDs and then hard drives.
Body cameras are newer and are still being rolled out. Currently, they are issued to officers in the motors unit (motorcycles) and the crime suppression unit, as well as to uniformed officers who are in unmarked cars.
Evidence from the body cams document the behavior of officers and the suspects during an encounter, said BPD spokesman Capt. Richard Berryman, SWAT commander in the Investigative Services Division.
He cited one example: An officer stopped a woman’s son who was driving her car with a revoked driver’s license and without her permission. He told his mother it wasn’t him and that someone must have stolen the car. When she and he came to the police station to file a theft report, the officer advised that it’s a felony offense to file a false report because it pulls an officer away from real work.
The son insisted on his innocence. So the officer showed the mother the video of the traffic stop. The only thing she said to her son before he was arrested was, “Don’t call me for bail.”
Videos also keep officers on their toes. Their supervisors check them at random to ensure good officer performance, and the data can be reviewed if a citizen has a dispute.
In one case, a video showed a skeptical officer’s error when a driver said she might be having a heart attack. Some suspects, such as speeders, fake medical problems when they’re trying to evade a ticket, Berryman explained. This woman was not faking.
The officer’s judgment wasn’t illegal, Berryman said, but he didn’t follow protocol.
Many times the data also protects officers agains claims of abuse or error, so officers don’t mind having the video evidence, Berryman said.
While a useful tool, the cams add to departmental costs, and not just for the hardware. The reviewing, storing and redaction of data is a hurdle described in recent news stories about the Memphis Police Department’s own body cam plans
For Bartlett officers, typically the data remains on hand for about a year, because by then any criminal complaints against an officer will fall outside the statute of limitations, Berryman said.
BPD’s dash cams are programmed to automatically record and store data if the officer turns on the flashing blue lights or the car goes faster than 70 mph. Suspects who know this may fool themselves into thinking no video evidence was captured if there’s a delay in operating the blue lights.
Not so, Berryman said. The dash cams capture video continuously and save it as needed. They can be programmed to save video for minutes before the lights kick on.
Patrol officers also have microphones on their belts that automatically operate within a set range when they step away from the vehicle.
Body cams differ. They must be switched on and off manually, and the officer has discretion on doing so, such as to manage battery life. Officers using body cams, such as officers in unmarked cars, are supposed to use them anytime they stop a suspect.
In Bartlett, the models in use have a lens cover that activates the camera and its microphone when the lens cover is removed.
Body cameras also can add to risks, such as with violent barricaded suspects, Berryman. He recounted a years-old case when a homicide suspect was found in Atlanta, and one of the marshals on the arrest wore a body camera. The suspect immediately shot the marshall in the head.
Despite videos that circulate nationally on social media, local officers really don’t get concerned when citizens insist on recording the officer, Berryman said.
“Happens all the time. And we really don’t mind it, because we’re not doing anything wrong, and we’re recording ourselves, and we know that. As long as you don’t get too close or in the officer’s way of doing his job.”
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), which patrols Lakeland and Arlington as part of their county operations, has used in-car dash cams for about 15 years. This school year, they also deployed 50 body cams for school resource officers at middle and high schools.
The plan is to expand body cams to all first responders as soon as funding is approved in the capital improvements program budget, according to Wink Downen, the SCSO’s IT chief.
First responders include patrol and traffic officers, the fugitives division, and officers who rein in the illegal use of alcohol and drugs.
He expects the implementation will come in phases and will require about 300 cameras.
Downen also believes the Sheriff’s Department has a much more economical plan for managing and storing data than the costly cloud data storage that MPD is considering.
Video stays on an SCSO server for 90 days and is then burned onto a Blu-Ray Disc for storage. The data is also cataloged and archived. There is ongoing cost for core personnel to manage the data, but he said it’s cheaper than cloud storage.
Feedback so far from school resource officers about their body cams has been encouraging, Downen said. When unruly students know they’re on camera, their attitudes improve.
Attorneys have access to video evidence for court cases and routinely review it for clients.
Members of the media and the public also can request copies of the cameras’ videos by using Freedom of Information requests, but there is associated work, Downen said.
Data has to be redacted to remove identifying images and information for uninvolved people to protect their privacy. That adds to costs.
Cam data is not available if part of an ongoing investigation, he said.
Downen also cautioned that video evidence, while important, isn’t an answer to everything. If the officer and suspect are close and in a struggle, the audio is still viable but the view is usually limited.
“You’re not going to see much but chest,” he said.
Body cams differ in looks and functionality by manufacturer and model. Downen said his department tried six different models before selecting one for use at schools, and he’s still not satisfied enough with it to make it the standard for the SCSO.
The current model requires the officer to remove the memory card, download it and make notes. That’s not good enough, he said.
“You don’t want to take time away from the officers’ patrol functions.”
He is looking for a body cam model that operates like dash cams do, automatically uploading at the end of the shift as officers pull into the parking lot.
He explained that dash cams work with the in-car system, and officers can input notes after a traffic stop. When the data is automatically uploaded later, the evidence is already cataloged.
SCSO officers also often face citizens who want to film officers doing their jobs. It’s not an issue as long as the individual doesn’t put himself, others, the officer or the investigation at risk.
For example, a man standing mid-street to film will be ordered to get out of traffic.
In all, the video technology seems to be an important tool for the SCSO, as well as the BPD, according to their spokesmen.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Downen said.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.