Police: Video cameras build trust
JANESVILLE — Law enforcement officers and innocent drivers survived life-threatening situations this past Dec. 31 during a police chase that started in the town of Beloit and ended after a standoff near the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
And Rock County Sheriff's Office squad car cameras caught all of the frantic action along U.S. Highway 51 between Beloit and Janesville.
“On New Year's Eve, the sheriff's office was involved in a pursuit, the use of a PIT maneuver to end the pursuit, followed by a significant use-of-force situation,” sheriff's office Cmdr. Troy Knudson said. “When the incident was explained to me, I had a number of concerns that clearly were resolved after viewing squad camera footage from two vantage points. The video demonstrated the excellent work by deputies at the scene, who resolved a serious situation as safely as possible.”
An officer successfully performed the precision immobilization technique, using his squad car to spin the suspect's pickup truck around and into a snow bank, ending the harrowing chase and any imminent danger to traffic. The combined video of nearly 40 minutes also captured officers' methodical task of subduing the knife-wielding suspect who threatened himself and his pursuers.
The ordeal provided law enforcement and the general public with an excellent tutorial about how such dangerous predicaments can play out and still result in positive outcomes. It also showed how squad and/or body cameras could be vital resources in evaluating officers' handling of such situations while creating transparency.
Members of four Rock County law enforcement departments — the sheriff's office, cities of Beloit and Janesville and the town of Beloit — shared their views about using camera technology.
Janesville's officers have used body cameras for five years and Beloit will make the transition later this year. The sheriff's office and town of Beloit currently are researching various systems and cost considerations. They all are taking advantage of in-car cameras.
“Many years ago, we purchased our first few squad cameras,” Knudson said of the sheriff's office. “The advantages of the technology were apparent, however, it was an early version and the system did not work as well as we wanted it to. A couple of years ago, we switched providers and have been impressed with the new system. If budgetary support continues, we hope to have all primary patrol vehicles equipped with squad cameras by 2018.
“We also have been exploring the acquisition of body cameras,” Knudson added. “However, the plan was to complete the squad camera system first. While body cameras certainly offer strong advantages over squad cameras, they are also a newer technology. As a result, there have been a number of concerns that we would like to see worked out prior to fully investing in that program.”
Chief David Zibolski said the city of Beloit is well on its way to rolling out body cameras.
“We have purchased our body-worn cameras, which are in policy review and IT preparation mode,” Zibolski said. “We purchased 50 (cameras) and made use of nine that were purchased in 2014 so that all of our officers, detectives and sergeants will have one.”
In the spotlight
High-profile police-related shootings around the country in the last couple of years certainly have been on the minds of Stateline area officers, who have not been immune to such controversies, and thus the issues surrounding body cameras have been front and center.
Area law enforcement officials agreed that cases that have dominated the headlines have forced departments to look at and/or update their camera capabilities, although inevitable advances in technology likely would have pushed them in that direction anyway.
“I would say a little of both, although if the technology wasn't good or in some fashion not affordable, it would be hard to implement,” Zibolski said. “I think the current environment in policing requires the use of this technology, both for the officer's benefit and the public's.”
“As an agency, we often discuss these emotionally charged national headlines to determine what we could learn and how these cases are likely to impact our profession,” Knudson said. “Squad and body cameras often are a solution to help establish facts in cases where there may be widely diverging perspectives of what actually occurred in an incident.”
Lending a helping hand
Officers polled said that cameras definitely have made a positive impact in policing, although there was some divergence of opinions about their deterrence abilities.
“The greatest benefit is addressing citizen complaints about police actions,” said Janesville Police Department Deputy Chief Jimmy Holford. “Video overwhelmingly exonerates the officers. They also increase accuracy in the officers' reporting dynamic incidents.”
“The benefit, as proven with other departments using them, is the transparency, the lowering of officer complaints and the evidentiary value,” said Town of Beloit Police Chief Ron Northrop. “(But) I can't think of a situation where the use of a body camera is going to deter how an officer reacts to a situation or if the action of a suspect is going to change because a camera is in use.”
Knudson said the sheriff's office has been fortunate that recent concerns were resolved through its squad cameras.
“The primary reason for using the camera system is that they can provide excellent evidence and liability mitigation, particularly with regards to complaints regarding deputies,” Knudson said, noting that body cameras have been helpful elsewhere in de-escalating potential bigger problems.
“Anecdotally, we have seen incidents with resistive and belligerent suspects who have toned down their interaction with law enforcement after being reminded that the officer is wearing a camera and that everything they are doing is being recorded,” Knudson said.
“We have had a number of incidents in which de-escalation techniques were used successfully,” he said. “Most people, if thinking clearly, will act better while being recorded. Adversely, those who have mental health issues or are under the influence will present this on the video and provide a broader view of the incident, how the officer attempted to de-escalate or ultimately had to resort to force to resolve the incident. A body-worn camera would have provided confirmation, as well as a training aid for other officers in similar situations.
“The benefits are innumerable,” Zibolski added, “including public transparency and trust building, usually better behavior by citizens and officers when being recorded, reduction in citizen complaints, crime scene processing and interviewing.”
Despite those many successes, that doesn't mean cameras are perfect and everything goes as planned, which isn't surprising considering the unpredictability of suspects and dealing with such stressful situations.
The cost and logistics of implementing the system also are factors that must be considered.
“Cost would be the biggest,” Holford said of the technology, “but we overcame that with the assistance from city administration, city council and community support.”
“The only reason for not having the body camera systems is cost and upkeep of cloud-based server systems,” Northrop said. “This is hard for smaller departments.”
“The open records law provisions could make this type of technology a huge time and cost burden for agencies in terms of staff time to redact, copy, etc.,” Zibolski said.
Knudson discussed several concerns.
“While cameras do an excellent job of recording an incident, one always must be cautious that they do only provide one perspective,” Knudson said. “There have been a number of incidents that have illustrated that one perspective may be a little misleading and sometimes it is valuable to have several recordings from different vantage points to give a more complete picture of the incident.
“While the sheriff's office is interested in acquiring body cameras, there have been concerns with some of the equipment and mounting systems that we have tested,” Knudson added. “Battery life and expensive evidence storage also have been concerns. Lastly, there have been some issues about privacy that have been less of an issue with squad cameras. Hopefully, all of these issues will be addressed quickly and we can move into acquiring this technology in the near future.”
Besides safety concerns, getting at the truth is paramount in any incident. And that's where cameras can play a vital role.
But the public's perceptions about how any particular scenario played out and/or was handled can't be overlooked, and thus, officers say interacting with the people they are sworn to protect has become increasingly key to effective communications and policing.
“We often attend community meetings, and when the subject of squad or body cameras comes up, they generally are perceived as a benefit to law enforcement and the community,” Knudson said. “I do believe that the public feels that squad and body camera systems are a benefit to everyone. At the same time, I believe that the expectation that comprehensive video always is available probably is greater than the reality.”
Holford said building transparency and trust is an emphasis.
“The Janesville Police Department is in touch with the community through neighborhood watch and a variety of committees, so public outreach is an ongoing effort,” Holford said. “Cameras do not affect officer behavior; they are just another reporting device that overwhelmingly supports officers' actions.”
Zibolski said he has hosted several community sessions in which body cameras were discussed.
“I think the public is generally in favor, however, they need to be aware of the pros and cons to video,” Zibolski said. “BWCs are not a panacea to community trust, nor do they always show all relevant circumstances and perceptions of an incident. Most also do not consider that their presence on BWCs could be requested by another citizen without cause under the open records law.”
Northrop also addressed that latter point.
“I've been in law enforcement for 33 years, and the biggest change has been technology,” Northrop said. “We are in a profession where changes are made for many reasons, mostly to provide the best service we can to our citizens. Servitude leadership is our goal — lead by example.
“The only issue the public might have with the use of body cameras is when and where the cameras are used and to respect the privacy of all,” he added. “Open records laws with video evidence will be a challenge for law enforcement and with the courts.”
What does the future hold?
Body cameras are a key piece to the future in policing, and the pluses and minuses likely will be debated. And nobody knows what effects the current and sometimes-chaotic political climate could have on law enforcement.
“There are some legislative proposals on the use of body cameras in Madison,” Zibolski said. “I think it is unnecessary for legislators to attempt to regulate each agency's use of this technology, just as it would be to dictate to each agency or community how to deploy their local law enforcement assets or what policing philosophy to employ. Legislative overreach will turn agencies away from body cameras. There are plenty of best-practice policies and research in the law enforcement community to implement a BWC system.”
So, area officers keep moving forward the best they can.
“We live in a world where everyone has a smartphone and can videotape any incident that is going on,” Northrop said. “We know as officers any incident we encounter is being captured in one way or another, either by us or by the public. The thing chiefs have to do is have high expectations of their officers to follow policies and laws and hold them accountable.”