Hoover will become the first Over the Mountain city to equip its police officers with body cameras, but police departments in other southern Jefferson County cities expect to follow suit.
Police chiefs in Homewood, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills said their departments are evaluating different body cameras as they consider the possibility of purchasing the devices for their officers. The police chiefs said they see the devices as the next technological step in law enforcement.
“Twenty years ago, it was rare to see a dash cam in a police car,” Vestavia Hills Police Chief Dan Rary said. “That’s standard equipment in police cars now, and I think that’s where we’re going with body cameras too.”
The Hoover City Council this month voted to buy body cameras for its patrol and traffic officers. The city will spend about $77,575 to purchase 90 body cameras from Taser International based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Hoover Police Chief Nick Derzis said the police department should receive the cameras within a month. After proper training, police should be equipped with body cameras by July, he added.
Equipping police with body cameras has become a topic of national interest following several high-profile encounters involving police and citizens. The latest call for body cameras comes following last month’s protests and riots in Baltimore after a 25-year-old man died from neck and spine injuries while in police custody. Six police have been charged in Freddie Gray’s death.
Following last year’s protests over the fatal shooting of a black teen by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama proposed committing nearly $75 million in government matching funds for law enforcement agencies nationwide to purchase body cameras.
In several cases involving police use of force, bystanders have used their cell phone cameras to video the encounters. The videos have both exonerated police actions and brought to light police misconduct.
But advocates of body cameras say police should carry their own devices – and these proponents aren’t just citizens.
Hoover Police Capt. Gregg Rector said body cameras will be useful in cases where citizens accuse police of misconduct.
“Any time you have an officer interacting with the community, sometimes there may be some discrepancies about what happened. This will take that out of the mix,” he said. “It’s a win-win for the police department and the community.”
Rector said the police department is formulating policy to govern the use of body cameras. The policy awaits the police chief’s approval, he said.
Homewood Police Chief Jim Roberson said he recognized the need for body cameras before Ferguson and unsuccessfully tried to get the purchase of body cameras included in the 2014-2015 city budget.
“We’ll ask for them again this year,” he said. “I think it’s something our officers need.” Roberson said technology already exists for citizens to video police, so it only makes sense for police to video their own encounters with the public. Although police vehicles have video cameras, if police move outside the range of the dash cam, they can’t be seen, he said.
“People are videotaping us every week,” Roberson said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s not enough for an officer to take the stand, raise his right hand and testify to the whole truth. Now the next question is, ‘Do you have video?’ So body cameras are just something I feel our officers need to protect themselves.”
Rary said his department is investigating the best options available in body camera technology. Among the considerations being evaluated are body cameras that operate manually compared to those that switch on automatically.
“The first time we bought dash cams for our patrol cars, we bought what was available at that moment, and the technology was outdated within the year,” Rary said. “So when you’re looking at an investment of thousands of dollars, you really want to make sure you make the right decision.”
Rary said he expects a decision on the type of body cameras Vestavia police prefer to be made within the next six months.
Of concern to Rary and chiefs of other departments is the expense and capability to store video from body cameras.
“We could go out today and spend less than $5,000 and have a body camera for every single officer,” Mountain Brook Police Chief Ted Cook said. “But then we would not have the storage ability to handle that data once we got it. So part of our searching is how we’re going to store that data … because we don’t know if we’re going to need that video in six months or a year or two years down the road.”
Although Mountain Brook has been investigating buying body cameras for two to three years, Cook said he delayed any purchase to coincide with the next upgrade of police vehicle dash cameras, which is scheduled for the upcoming budget.
“It didn’t make sense to purchase a (body camera video) system 14 months before we were about to change our in-car system,” he said.
Mountain Brook police hope to purchase in-car cameras and body cameras that share “a similar platform for storage and retrieving the data that comes off those cameras,” the Mountain Brook police chief said.
Cook, however, cautioned against viewing body cameras as being the perfect solution.
“You’re still going to have some things that are going to get blocked from vision whether you have a head-mounted camera or body camera clipped to the buttons on the front of the vest,” he said. “If an officer has a Taser-type weapon or a firearm up and ready to shoot, that’s probably going to block the major part of the view of that camera placed on their chest.”
Nevertheless, Cook said in most cases he expects body cameras to confirm proper conduct by police more than misconduct.
“For us, in our history using in-car cameras, the video has more often disproven complaints against officers than not,” he said. “I expect that to be the same, and even more so, with the body cameras.”