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Increased Body Camera Use By Police Leads To Questions

Barbara Harrington
Indiana Public Broadcasting

When Bloomington police officer Matt Gilmore gets into his squad car, he has an extra set of eyes.

The Bloomington Police Department purchased 30 body cameras last year as part of  a trial program.

The officers wear the cameras  on their chests and flip them on  during interactions with the public, giving an up-close perspective of what’s happening.

"In this environment we’re dealing with all kinds of people and so having the ability to document that I think is important. And, I think the officers see how important it is also," says Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff.

Once an officer’s shift is over, the footage is downloaded to a server.

Interactions where nothing happens aren’t saved but those involving an arrest or other incidents are kept as evidence.

And, police expect those recordings will play a crucial role in prosecuting cases.

"It’s documenting what happens. It’s much like the in-car video cameras that we have and a lot of other departments have. Those record traffic stop type encounters because those are in the cars," Diekhoff says. "That has gone a long way in really helping with convictions in drunk driving cases. I see this as kind of an extension of that."

While police see the new technology as an important tool in crime fighting, others see it as an invasion of privacy.

Indiana University cybersecurity expert Fred Cate says the push to outfit police with body cameras is understandable, but daunting.

"Already one of the things that people talk about that’s fairly distinctive about U.S. policing is how difficult it is to engage with police now. You know, they’re in cars, they wear body armor, and adding a camera is only going to add to that. Who’s going to want to have a word with a police officer if you know that everything you’re saying is being recorded, including your image while talking," Cate says.

Since most police departments require their officers to hit record for every interaction they have with the public that means  the cameras aren’t rolling at all times.

Cate says that’s causing some concerns.

"If you say, they’re going to be able to turn it off so if they order food in a restaurant or when they’re on break they’re going to turn it off, then, how do you know it’s going to turn back on, how do you know it’s going to record the next interaction?  And, I think that’s going to be really brutal to police." 

Cate says there are also concerns about what will happen to the footage that’s recorded and who will have access to the video.

Both the International Association of the Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum have released recommendations for best practices regarding the use of body cams.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is looking to those models as they test the new technology.

IMPD is launching a body camera pilot program within the next two weeks. Several vendors are lending them the devices on a temporary basis.

"The pilot project will involve six officers representing our different districts, our six districts in the city," says IMPD Lt. Mark Wood. "So, we’ll have representation from each one of those districts, a variety of people from different shifts who will then use those in their shifts on probably a six-week basis to get an idea of how the technology works and how it may help or hinder what they do."

Once the trial period is over, IMPD will evaluate the program and decide whether to purchase the cameras, which they say could protect officers and citizens.

"Many times memories are different than somebody else’s, their ability to recall is not necessarily what a camera would record. So, it gives us a better and more accurate encounter between police and the public," Wood says.

That’s what officers back in Bloomington are finding. The cameras capture an unbiased account of what happens when they’re out on patrol. Police say that’s helping to build up trust.

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