Akron Police Body Cameras Have Their Eyes on You — and Officers

The program will give more than 200 officers body cameras in the hopes of improved safety and accountability.

by Amanda Garrett, Akron Beacon Journal / September 27, 2017

(TNS) — A long, narrow office that once belonged to an Akron police captain now serves as a giant charging and download station for body cameras on the fifth floor of headquarters.

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and acting police Chief Ken Ball Tuesday announced the long-anticipated rollout of the cameras, but patrol officers have already started using the cameras, already logging more than 16,000 hours worth of police interactions with the public.

The small black, blinking devices are now attached to the breast pockets of 115 of the department’s 216 patrol officers across the city, but will ultimately be standard equipment for all patrol officers, the traffic unit and neighborhood response team.

Horrigan said he hoped the cameras would both improve citizen safety by recording important evidence and improve transparency and accountability.

Other departments have reported a drop in citizen complaints and of police incidents using force after using body cameras, Horrigan said.

But, he cautioned, no piece of equipment is the solution.

How it works

Patrol officers on the way to roll call can slip the mobile phone-sized devices out of their charger stations and onto the breast pockets of their uniforms or coats.

A flat piece of perforated metal goes inside the pocket and the camera, in a magnetized case, sticks to the fabric on the outside.

When work starts for an officer, she turns the camera to “buffering’’ mode, which continuously records silent, 30-second loops that are recycled until the officers hits “record” by double-tapping a button bigger than a silver dollar on the front of the camera.

Police department policy says officers should record each call for service that is likely to result in citizen contact, along with other events such as civil disturbances or suspicious behavior.

Officer and citizens will know the body cameras are recording if the green, flashing light on the outside — signifying buffering mode — switches to solid red.

The policy clearly states when an officer can turn off a recording, from the obvious — when an interaction with a citizen concludes — to the perhaps not so obvious, like when a victim or witness refuses to cooperate as long as the body camera is recording.

Any officer could have dozens of recordings per shift and each recording must be digitally labeled, said Sgt. Brian Armstead. He and Lt. Mark Farrar are now working full time to maintain the body camera hardware and software and to work with the courts on video evidence.

Armstead said it’s easiest for officers to label their recordings after each one is finished.

To do so, officers use a mobile phone application and type in the police report number that matches the video, if a report was generated, and the address where the video was made.

Officers next assign crime codes to the videos that determined how long they will be saved in the system.

Videos categorized as non-evidentiary or administrative have the shortest retention — 60 days. Videos involving rape, murder, sexual battery and other issues can be retained forever.

Once an officer’s shift has ended, she’ll return to the fifth floor and slip the body camera back into a wall slot where that shift’s videos will automatically download as the device recharges.

Officers cannot alter or delete the original recordings, Armstead said, and a digital trail shows everyone who has opened one of the files.

Armstead said most of the officers on patrol are younger and using the technology is easy for them, particularly using the mobile phone app with the camera.

There has been some skepticism, he said, “but for the most part, they understand if I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m fine. I can document my side of the story.”

Transparency is key

Chief Ball said Tuesday the process of getting cameras began in August 2014 when he and a deputy chief went to see a body camera demonstration at the Norton Police Department.

It was the same month Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., which fueled and drew national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But that’s not what drove Akron to get the cameras, Ball said.

“This organization will never back away from transparency,” Ball said. “We seek to do things that are right, that are honorable.”

Ball, as a captain, led the department’s testing of five body cameras, the largest test of any police department east of the Mississippi River, he said. Akron ultimately chose a system made and maintained by Axon, which also makes the Taser stun gun.

The five-year plan with Axon costs about $1 million, about $370,000 of which will be paid by a federal grant.

Among other things, it includes cameras, which will be replaced with the newest version after 2½ years and cloud storage for the body camera videos, which is measured in petabytes.

The city also had to triple its bandwidth to support the recording devices or face citywide computer slowdowns or stops.

If voters pass Issue 4 in November increasing the city income tax, Ball said the department may get new cameras for police cars that would synch with their body cameras.

Only about half of Akron police vehicles now have cameras, in part because the technology being used is so old, it can’t be fixed if it breaks, police said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Beacon Journal submitted its first public records request to view Akron police body camera video footage taken during a police-involved shooting in Goodyear Heights on Friday night.

Unlike police reports and calls to 911 dispatcher recordings — which police routinely share with reporters hours after crimes and other incidents occur — access to all police body camera video will be controlled by Akron’s law department.

©2017 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.