Ten local police agencies are using the emerging video technology – and others are poised to join them. We have answers on why some departments have taken this route and why others have not.
For many local law-enforcement agencies, body-worn cameras have become part of the uniform for police officers on patrol.
But others have counted the cost or weighed a range of other considerations and have decided not to introduce the technology into their ranks.
The small cameras, which are available from a variety of vendors, are designed to record video and audio footage that documents specified police interactions with the public. Depending on a department’s procedures, these interactions include everything from routine traffic stops to situations involving use of force to virtually any encounter an officer deems significant.
Ten of 24 law-enforcement agencies surveyed in ThisWeek’s central Ohio coverage area presently use body cameras: the cities of Columbus, Dublin, Groveport, Powell, Reynoldsburg, Westerville and Whitehall; Delaware and Union counties; and Ohio State University.
Deputy Chief Jeffrey Lawless and the Gahanna Division of Police do not use body cameras for reasons that include cost allocation and no requests to do so from residents or city leaders.
Half of those departments began using the cameras in 2019.
Other departments are considering or planning implementation of the devices, according to ThisWeek’s survey results.
For example, the Bexley Police Department has purchased units and will start using them soon; the Hilliard Division of Police is looking into implementing a program as soon as 2021; the Grove City Division of Police is working on a policy and cost analysis; the Grandview Heights and Pickerington departments are considering them; and the New Albany and Worthington departments have not ruled them out now that recent changes to state public-records laws have taken effect.
Still other agencies, such as the Gahanna Division of Police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol, have brought all the variables surrounding body cameras into focus and have decided not to use them.
Although the decisions vary by agency, the prevailing sentiment seems to be the same: Body-worn cameras are here to stay in central Ohio.
Applying state law
THE ISSUE: As of April, the video footage from police departments’ body-worn cameras is a public record in Ohio.
WHY IT MATTERS: Public records are everyone’s business. It’s your right to know how body cameras are used, which police forces are using the technology and why they are or are not using the devices.
Although body cameras are not required by Ohio law, they are subject to it.
Before Gov. John Kasich left office in January, he signed a bill that specified police body-camera recordings are public records, with some privacy exceptions.
That measure, House Bill 425, became effective in April and is significant because it made police body-camera footage a public record for the first time, said David Moser, an associate attorney with Isaac Wiles Burkholder & Teetor in Columbus.
“That has never been explicitly stated before,” said Moser, who often works with local law-enforcement agencies and tries to keep tabs on new legislation.
Exceptions to the statute, Moser said, primarily involve privacy rights.
Examples of protected information include children’s identities or the identities of victims of sex offenses or domestic violence, confidential medical details and the interiors of private residences or private businesses if no extenuating circumstances are involved.
The law’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages, Moser said.
The No. 1 advantage is the transparency the law provides, he said. The government, he said, has a responsibility to be clear with the public.
“Their job is to serve us, and in serving us, their job is to also maintain and provide footage of interaction with individuals,” Moser said.
The second advantage, he said, is that body-camera footage is useful evidence for the government and the public in the event of litigation because it leaves less up to interpretation.
“It’s a useful tool for both sides, honestly,” Moser said.
Although courts previously heard testimony from the police officer and witnesses, footage of an incident is more persuasive, he said.
“Good footage is extremely powerful and a very effective tool,” Moser said.
Although body cameras can be helpful in some cases, the volume of footage makes it impossible to review everything, said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien.
But body-camera footage played a key role in a recent conviction, according to O’Brien.
In September, a Franklin County jury convicted 27-year-old E’Lorna McCallum of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of 34-year-old Latasha Dailey on May 23, 2018, in Columbus’ Hilltop neighborhood, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
McCallum initially had been charged with aggravated murder and murder, and Dailey was in an estranged relationship with McCallum’s sister at the time of the shooting, according to the Dispatch.
In that case, body-camera footage showed the arrest, the discovery of the shooting victim and previous visits of Columbus Division of Police officers to a house that night and the day before on domestic violence-menacing calls, O’Brien said.
“The body-cam video showed the jury the demeanor of the various involved parties in the minutes leading up to the fatal shooting,” he said.
During the trial, McCallum testified that she had moved into a house with the couple to protect her sister against threats from Dailey, according to the Dispatch. Dailey moved out about two weeks before the shooting, but she returned May 22, 2018, triggering heated exchanges that brought police officers to the residence that day and May 23.
At 11:10 p.m. May 23, about nine minutes after police made their last attempt to calm the situation, Dailey made the first of three calls to 911 to report McCallum was threatening her with a handgun and had chased her from the home, according to the Dispatch. At 11:18 p.m., McCallum shot Dailey in the back of the head in front of a residence several doors south of where they lived, according to trial testimony.
Despite the obvious advantages of HB 425, like most laws, it still could be subject to a few weaknesses, Moser said.
Although the law is as specific as it can be, what is private still could be up to interpretation, he said.
“The law is always full of gray areas,” he said.
Also, even camera footage can be subject to misinterpretation, Moser said, and nothing will ever be as clear as a first-person account.
Nevertheless, the cameras likely are here to stay, he said.
Moser said predicting any future changes in state law concerning body cameras is difficult because HB 425 is so new.
Down the road, though, changes could include amendments to the language itself, he said.
“I think this is a good starting framework,” Moser said.
No new legislation concerning body cameras is moving through the House or Senate at present, according to Lisa Osterloh, a research assistant at the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan agency providing the Ohio General Assembly with drafting, research, budget and fiscal analysis, training and other services.
When asked if he foresaw any changes to state law concerning body cameras, O’Brien said no.
He also said he does not foresee body cameras becoming a requirement for law-enforcement agencies.
“It will be decided by each agency and by available funding,” O’Brien said.
Using body cameras
Local police departments have been adding body cameras from multiple vendors over the past few years, with Ohio State being among the first locally to add a pilot program in 2014, according to ThisWeek’s survey results.
″(Ohio State) proactively sought this technology to enhance evidence collection and case enhancement,” said Dan Hedman, director of marketing and communications with the university’s office of administration and planning. “A pilot phase began in September 2014, and use of seven cameras continued through November 2016. From that point forward, all uniformed, sworn police officers were issued body-worn cameras.”
All officers, sergeants and lieutenants on the Columbus campus wear the Axon cameras, which are activated manually but also automatically when an electroshock weapon is deployed, Hedman said. The department has 59 sworn officers.
In late 2015, the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office began looking into body cameras and implemented them in summer 2017, said Tracy Whited, community- and media-relations manager.
“It helps build trust among residents and creates another level of accountability and transparency,” she said.
The sheriff’s office uses the cameras to assist in training and for investigations, and on numerous occasions, the footage has exonerated deputies, Whited said.
Of the sheriff’s office’s 107 sworn officers, only the four command staff members do not wear the manually activated Panasonic Arbitrator Mark III cameras, she said.
Columbus – which has approximately 1,890 sworn officers and is the largest local police force ThisWeek surveyed – started using body cameras in December 2016, according to Denise Alex-Bouzounis, a police spokeswoman.
Patrol, freeway, community-response, field-training and probationary officers use the button-activated WatchGuard cameras, she said.
Powell, which has 20 sworn officers, began using its WatchGuard Vista WiFi body cameras in March 2017, according to Sgt. Ron Sallows.
“Our agency has used in-cruiser video systems for over 20 years and found it to be very beneficial,” Sallows said. “Like many police agencies, body-worn cameras provide documentation of officer interactions with the public, can be utilized as a resource for review of police practices, uses of force, complaints, training and aids in the prosecution of persons during court.”
Powell officers must activate their video equipment upon being dispatched to any call for service or during any officer-initiated action or contact with a citizen, he said.
“Our video systems can be activated multiple different ways, as our body-worn cameras and in-cruiser video systems work in tandem,” Sallows said. “This means when a record sequence is initiated by pushing the record button on the body-worn camera or in-car video system, or when the emergency lights are activated, both video systems activate and record.”
Whitehall in July 2018 equipped all officers in uniform or on patrol with button-activated WatchGuard body cameras, said Deputy Chief Daniel Kelso. The department has 47 full-time sworn officers and 14 auxiliary sworn officers, and the cameras are assigned to officers each shift, he said.
The city decided to “lead rather than follow” a growing national trend in policing, Kelso said.
“Just about every citizen we contact in every situation has a camera,” he said. “It only makes sense we have one, too.”
The cameras help preserve evidence, Kelso said. They also protect and exonerate officers from unfounded or false complaints and allow prosecutors and juries to see the conduct of suspects and crime scenes, he said.
Finally, the cameras help supervisors spot training needs and hold both residents and officers accountable, he said.
“All around, (body cameras are) contributing to excellence in policing,” Kelso said. “That’s what we are after at the Whitehall police department. … And these have actually been a huge contributor to that, inside and out – outside on the job we are doing and inside on when we are evaluating and learning and getting better at our jobs.”
Five departments began using body cameras this year.
Union County deputies added GovDirect body cameras in February, according to information from the sheriff’s office, which has 47 sworn personnel.
Union County’s body cameras are activated manually and automatically through “triggers” that include the activation of overhead lights, the “G-force sensor” in the cruiser or in-car video system and when a cruiser’s speed reaches 85 mph, according to the sheriff’s office.
Dublin began rolling out WatchGuard body cameras and in-car video units in March, and the process will be completed by January, said Melanie Amato, public-information officer with the city.
The department has 72 sworn officers, and its body cameras and in-car video systems are activated manually or by cruiser lights and sirens, she said.
“Body-worn cameras give our employees an additional tool to assist in documenting police incidents and improve transparency with the public we serve,” Amato said.
Reynoldsburg, which will have 69 officers as of Dec. 9, started using its switch-activated Kustom Signals body cameras May 11, said Chief David Plesich.
“We implemented (body cameras) to provide an accurate and unbiased recorded account of an incident,” Plesich said.
Westerville’s use of Axon body cameras began over the summer in the department of 76 full-time sworn officers, said Christa Dickey, the city’s community-affairs director.
The cameras can be activated manually and automatically, she said.
Groveport police Chief Ralph Portier said his department of 24 started using its Axon cameras about two months ago, though his officers “have market-tested units for the past couple of years.”
Groveport officers activate the body cameras manually, he said.
Future users likely will include the Bexley and Hilliard forces, according to the ThisWeek survey.
“We have purchased body cameras and are in the process of purchasing redaction software,” said Chief Larry Rinehart. “Once that software is purchased and functional, we will train employees on its use, Ohio law and departmental policy, which is currently under development. Once that is all completed, we will deploy the cameras.”
Hilliard is looking into implementing a program in 2021, according to Andrea Litchfield, a police spokeswoman.
“Our staff is evaluating products to consider over the next year as part of a budget proposal to (Hilliard) City Council,” Litchfield said. “Identifying the cost of starting the program and maintaining the program is a large focus of implementation. This must take place prior to determining the best platform and manufacturer.”
Both Litchfield and Rinehart mentioned “transparency” in policing as reasons for their departments’ interest in body cameras.
Counting the cost
A commonly cited U.S. Department of Justice report with data from 2016 indicates about half of the nation’s more than 15,000 general-purpose law-enforcement agencies had acquired body cameras at that time.
However, the devices’ growing popularity doesn’t mean all agencies have them – or will have them.
Moser said although he hopes all police agencies would use body cams in the future, the cost to install and maintain the technology can be an impediment to smaller agencies.
Because central Ohio law-enforcement agencies vary in size, circumstances and policies, a cost comparison is difficult to quantify.
For example, Columbus’ initial investment to outfit officers with cameras and accessories was approximately $1.97 million, and the initial investment in storage was approximately $1.5 million, according to the Columbus Department of Public Safety. The cost to maintain the cameras is about $200,000 for extended warranties and maintenance of the cameras “unless a wholesale replacement is needed, when there will be considerable investment,” the department said.
The other departments, which are much smaller in size, reported much lower costs.
Dublin’s camera cost was $340,000 for five years, a fee that covers body cameras, in-car cameras, video servers, storage infrastructure, licensing, installation, training and maintenance agreements, Amato said.
Whitehall’s cost of $216,000 was for cameras and equipment, as well as a three-year warranty and service agreement, Kelso said.
For Delaware County, the initial costs for purchasing 100 cameras, docking stations and portable chargers, along with training, licenses and storage, was $140,000, Whited said. The county pays $11,000 in annual maintenance for the technology, she said.
At Ohio State, the administration and planning office paid $32,508 for the initial equipment purchase, Hedman said. The university’s contract with Axon for hardware and cloud storage is valued at approximately $140,000 over five years, he said.
For local departments that do not use body cameras, cost was cited multiple times in the surveys returned to ThisWeek, but other factors are at play, too.
Although a cost-benefit analysis did not yield favorable results for the Gahanna Division of Police, more video also is not an automatic boon for police, said Chief Jeff Spence.
“The equipment is not expensive, but the cost of maintaining and producing records related to their use can be prohibitive,” Spence said. “The hidden cost of staff time dedicated to filling records requests was extensive – almost a full-time position. Recently, the (Ohio Revised Code) changed as it relates to body-camera footage and the many redactions (as many as 26 separate redactions of both audio and video data), which must occur in the most routine of contacts.
“Body cameras do not capture everything, just as our cruiser cameras and body-worn microphones do not capture every detail of an encounter. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in an environment that if something is not recorded on video, it did not happen. Video is a tool, but the absence of video or audio evidence does not mean something did not occur. That is what the courts are for – to balance testimony and evidence to decide innocence or guilt.”
Spence said Gahanna’s funds are better spent as investments in personnel, best practices, national accreditation and training for all levels of officers. The division has 55 budgeted sworn positions, with one vacancy due to a midyear retirement, he said.
“There has not been the demand from our citizens and administration to pursue body-worn cameras,” he said. “We have spoken to the costs and the hidden costs that I have mentioned. Meanwhile, some agencies have discontinued body-camera programs after investing significant upfront dollars once those agencies realized the hidden costs, costs of sustaining the program and other things, such as training or vital equipment that must be curtailed in order to fund the camera programs.
“Should our elected leaders or the community desire to direct a body-worn camera program, we can implement one rather quickly given adequate funding for equipment, infrastructure and staffing. Such a program should not come at the expense of other critical needs, most notably staffing.”
The Delaware Police Department and Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office also noted cost as the primary factor for not using body cameras.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State Highway Patrol – which has approximately 1,600 sworn officers statewide and is the second-largest agency ThisWeek surveyed – has found dash cameras to be more in line with its mission, according to staff Lt. Craig S. Cvetan, the patrol’s public-affairs commander.
Cvetan said the patrol has tested body-worn cameras.
“After testing, it was determined the dash-camera video system was a better platform, based on current technology for the type of work troopers do,” he said. “We are always looking at new technology and how it may be used to enhance our operations.”
Cvetan said dash cameras are better suited to documenting traffic violations and troopers’ typical interactions with the public.
“For troopers, the majority of their work is done in close proximity to their patrol car,” he said. “The dash cam provides the ability to capture any traffic violations, a wider field of view for documentation of the contact, better documentation for court purposes, multiple camera inputs, multiple audio inputs, more video storage, automatic activation, a secure storage system and an unlimited power source.”