Body cams protect officers, public from misunderstandings

Port Orchard police are phasing in the use of body cameras.

The cameras will bring the force in line with other law enforcement in Kitsap County equipped with video recording devices, such as Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo and Bremerton.

“We heard from community members they wanted [us to have] body cameras,” police chief Matt Brown said. “The body cams will provide the community with transparency on what we are doing day in and day out.”

The small cameras are worn on the officer’s chest and record interactions with the public. The cameras have a microphone along with storage so video can be reviewed later. “The use of BWCs [body-worn cameras] is intended to enhance the mission of the department by accurately capturing contacts between members of the department and the public,” a new policy on the recording equipment says.

The public was introduced to body cams when video accounts of law enforcement interactions around the country – frequently police shootings – were shown on TV.

The department’s use of body cameras is welcomed by the Bremerton NAACP. “This a positive for the community,” local NAACP president Robert Harris said. “We think this adds to Port Orchard’s law enforcement commitment to transparency to the community, provided this information can be easily obtained upon request.”

He added, “It also creates an environment of accountability with law enforcement which is definitely a positive for the public and will probably lead to less complaints about officers from the public as video encounters with the public tells the story of what really happened.”

Brown agreed. “I have seen research where complaints against officers drop when body cameras are involved,” he said. “Now, whether or not that is because officers are behaving or because community members are not making allegations because they are untrue – that’s kind of up for debate.”

Another reason to use the equipment is a new state law. “With the laws changing where we have to record all post-arrest interviews, without having a body cam that is incredibly difficult,” Brown said. “You can use a cell phone to do that, but it can be a little intimidating when someone says hang on a second, and they pull out their phone and point it at your face and says, ‘Now please talk.’”

A law went into effect the first of this year that requires interrogations to be electronically recorded if the person is a juvenile or the crime relates to a felony. Interrogations at a jail or police station must be recorded by audio and video means. Questioning at other locations must be recorded by audio at a minimum.

Interviews rooms at the Port Orchard police station are also being fitted with video cameras now. The old cameras fell into disrepair years ago, requiring city officers to go to the sheriff’s office to conduct videotaped interviews, Brown said.

Advocates of recordings say they decrease the chance of false confessions or use of cohesion during an interview. When an interview is taped others viewing the recording will see what led to a confession, they add.

Steven Lewis, head of the Kitsap Office of Public Defense, likes having Port Orchard police equipped with body cams.

“In cases where an officer is accused of wrongdoing, it can serve as a strong protection for them if in fact, they did nothing wrong. In cases where an accused person asserts that they didn’t say that to an officer or that’s not how a particular interaction went down, it gives us – attorneys in the criminal legal system, prosecutors and defense counsel – an independent and presumably objective source of information with which to test assertions of how the interactions and conversations between officers and citizens actually played out. It is better for all concerned,” he said.

Officers wear the body cam “in a conspicuous manner” and notify individuals they are recording “as soon as practicable,” department policy says. There is no requirement for an officer to turn off the camera if a citizen objects to having an interaction recorded.

Use of cameras

“All officers in the field will be required to wear them during their shifts,” Brown said. “They are required to [manually] turn them on during any law enforcement action.”

For example, an officer is to start a camera when he or she observes a traffic infraction and is going to pull over the driver, Brown said. Among other times a camera is to be activated will be during a search, arrest, vehicle pursuit or field interview. Once a camera is activated it is to remain on until the event has concluded, according to policy. After additional accessories are obtained, the cameras will automatically turn on in a limited number of instances – such as if an officer activates their taser or removes a firearm from a holster, Brown said. Social interactions do not need to be recorded.

In the future, the cameras could be set up to automatically be activated in other instances, such as when radio dispatches an officer to a call. However, such adjustments come with a price tag. “We could spend $150,000 and outfit every car so that when the door is opened or you turn the [overhead] lights on the camera turns on,” Brown said.

Officers will be allowed a grace period to get used to wearing the cameras and to remember to turn them on. Officers will have a month, or 16 shifts, whichever is later, to become accustomed to the device, policy says. “I don’t think that our team is going to go out there and say, ‘I’m not going to turn on my body camera on.’ But when you are under stress, especially when it’s something new, it may not be part of your thought process,” Brown said.

Port Orchard purchased the Axon Body 3 model – at a price tag of $700 each. An internal workgroup spent months reviewing various models, the chief said. The camera unit is smaller than an index card and can be slipped into a pocket or clipped anywhere on the chest. The unit weighs not much more than a cell phone and is powered by a rechargeable battery that has a 12-hour life.

Brown said a key reason the city went with this manufacturer is because police departments in Bremerton, Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo use Axon body cameras. “Our officers can talk to peers in the area and ask them about their experience with the product,” he said, adding it’s also user-friendly.

Officers won’t share body cams. The department purchased body cameras for each of the 23 officers. “We don’t share body armor, firearms or cars,” Brown said. “[The cameras] are issued to people so they can practice and be comfortable with them. It’s much more efficient for everybody to have their own issued equipment.

“As for sharing equipment – I guess the best way I can think about it is – when you live in an apartment or rental house, how well did you take care of that? I bet the house that you own, you probably take care of it a lot better because it’s yours.”

Officer use

Officer David Huibregtse is already wearing a body cam during shifts. “I was a little apprehensive at first. It is one of those new tools you are always kind of concerned about. Am I going to screw up? Is somebody going to see [the video] and misunderstand what is totally going on?

“There is always apprehension about whether this going to affect the way that I do my job. Am I going to hold back when I really shouldn’t? Am I going to not handle the situation the way I was trained to do because I am afraid of what people may perceive?”

The officer said there are times he forgets to turn on his camera. “Sometimes you’ll get a hot call – like a robbery or assault in progress – and you go jumping out of your car, and a couple of minutes into it you go, ‘Eh, I got to turn on my camera.’ The last thing you are thinking about is activating a body camera. You are thinking about – what am I going to find when I get there, what am I going to do?” he said.

Huibregtse, a 21-year police veteran who started in the State Patrol and transferred to POPD in 2013, said his original concerns over the recording device have gone away over time. “It just became just another tool in our arsenal of equipment. You really kind of forget it’s there,” he said.

Brown cautioned that body cams don’t record everything. “Understand that body cameras only show one perspective. They are not looking where I am looking. They are only looking straight out from the position of the camera. They may not hear everything. They certainly are not going to see everything. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. You could fly a drone around an officer and still not capture everything.

“But I think that having some [recording] helps to demystify what we do,” Brown said.

The main downside is the price, he added. “It’s not like you can just purchase them and implement them and you’re done. There are ongoing costs both in staff time and technology. You could also say, “Well my horse that I used go on patrol with, that was a lot cheaper than a car so I’m going to stick with a horse.’ Technology changes, and we have to change and adapt with it. I think that makes us better,” he said.