Police Body Cam Pilot Begins in Kansas City, Mo.

The test will help police officials determine how they would store footage from the cameras and whether equipment upgrades are needed.

by Glenn E. Rice, The Kansas City Star / September 27, 2016
David Kidd

(TNS) -- For the next 90 days, about 25 Kansas City police officers will be equipped with body cameras, police officials announced Monday.

The three-month test began Monday, with officers wearing standard body cameras that officers turn on manually.

The test will help police officials determine how they would store footage from the cameras and whether equipment upgrades are needed.

“We’ve seen other agencies rush to get the cameras out and then have to pull them back because they couldn’t afford the storage costs or other issues,” Police Chief Darryl Forté said in a statement. “We don’t want that to happen in Kansas City. If we promise something to people, we want to be able to keep that promise.”

In the aftermath of fatal officer-involved shootings of unarmed citizens, civil rights organizations have demanded that every officer wear a body camera. Yet some have warned that the technology promises no easy solution to confrontations between civilians and police.

The public has clamored for law enforcement to release the dashboard and body camera recordings following recent fatal police shootings in Milwaukee; Tulsa, Okla.; and Charlotte, N.C. Those shootings led to widespread, sometimes-violent protests.

Some area law enforcement agencies, including the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and Lenexa police, already have equipped their patrol and field officers with body cameras. The Unified Government in Kansas City, Kan., recently approved funding of police body cameras.

Several community groups have expressed their support for the use of body cameras because it would help create better transparency and enhance public trust.

“Every measure we can take as a community to ensure just and fair policing is a step in the right direction,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of More2, a social justice coalition of about two dozen congregations throughout Kansas City.

In Kansas City, officers assigned to the patrol, bike and traffic divisions will wear the body cameras during the 90-day test. Police officials want to see how much video footage each officer will generate. At the end of the test period, officers who use the cameras will be surveyed about how well the devices worked.

A vendor has lent Kansas City police about 25 body cameras to test. The department expects to spend about $1,000 in overtime to train the officers to use the equipment.

Authorities in Tulsa released dashboard camera video that showed Officer Betty Shelby fatally shoot Terence Crutcher, who was unarmed. In that incident, Shelby was not wearing a body camera. Shelby was later charged with first-degree manslaughter.

In Charlotte, the police chief released two videos following days of protests. However, one of the officers who responded to the incident involving Keith Lamont Scott failed to activate his body camera until after the shooting, The Washington Post reported Monday.

Police officials in Kansas City said they might eventually consider using body cameras that turn on automatically.

Civil rights leaders in Kansas City applauded the Police Department’s decision to test the use of body cameras but warn that it is only the first step of many.

“What we have seen across the country is that included in the body camera policy should be assurances that the content of the body camera videos will be released in incidences of fatal shootings and when deadly force is being used,” said the Rev. Vernon P. Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.

Howard said police officials in Charlotte reluctantly yielded to public demands to release the video days after the wife of Scott released video of the shooting that she captured on her cellphone.

“We had to see the great tragedy not from the police video, but it was from his wife’s video begging them not to shoot him, begging them to back off,” Howard said.

Video captured during the test period will be treated similar to dashboard camera video, which is subject to the Missouri Open Records law and cannot be released if it is part of an ongoing investigation, said Maj. Scott Glaeser, commander of the patrol bureau. There also are limitations on what footage can be released.

Kansas City began using dashboard cameras in the late 1990s.

“Certainly the perspective of the body-worn camera would help us gather more information,” Glaeser said. “They don’t tell the whole story. They give more information than what we have right now, and that is important.”

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99 said it has worked with the Police Department on the implementation of body cameras for some time.

Research conducted by the national FOP group found the use of body cameras has cleared 93 percent of officer complaint cases.

“Body-worn cameras can be a great tool for officers and the department,” said Sgt. Brad Lemon, lodge president. “With any tool, however, nothing is without drawbacks.”

For example, the camera will not always capture everything the officer sees, Lemon said.

“We do believe body-worn cameras can help build public trust and ensure transparency,” he said. “It is our hope body-worn cameras will close the divide between officers and the public they serve.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation that limits the public’s ability to see footage captured from body-worn cameras. The law prohibits public access to video if it was taken inside private homes, schools and medical facilities, and other areas generally not open to the public.

At the end of the 90-day test, Kansas City Police Department officials said, they should have an idea of how much it would cost to store the camera footage, which they will later present to city officials as part of a funding request.

Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, a member of the City Council’s public safety committee, commended the department for testing body cameras but was not sure if the city was in a position to fund full implementation.

“Cameras alone can’t solve every issue, but greater transparency can protect officers and civilians,” Lucas said. “Those who care will have to make funding body cameras a priority and a key request to the police board.”

©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.