Whitehall, Ohio, Police to Purchase Body Cameras

The $47,000 move will make the department the first in Franklin County to deploy the cameras.

by Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / April 30, 2018
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(TNS) — Police in Whitehall, Ohio, were initially a little hesitant about video-recording all their interactions with citizens from close range.

But the skepticism didn't last long.

The body cameras were so well-received during testing that by late summer, the suburb will become the first in Franklin County to equip all its police officers with the new technology.

"Now they don't want to take them off," Whitehall Police Chief Mike Crispin said.

Big-city police departments are often at the forefront of conversations on body cameras; Columbus already has some officers equipped with body cameras and will equip all officers with body cameras by the end of June. Yet officials with a growing number of central Ohio's suburban agencies also are embracing them.

They say there are benefits to offering supervisors, the courts and the public an up-close look at how police do their jobs.

On April 3, the Whitehall City Council approved buying 43 cameras for about $47,000 from WatchGuard Video of Allen, Texas, the same vendor that Columbus selected for its equipment. The department used its Law Enforcement Trust Fund, which contains money seized from drug trafficking and other criminal activity, to pay for the $216,000 total purchase. That amount includes digital storage space for footage, software and new dash cameras for the department's dozen or so cruisers that will sync with the body cameras.

Bexley, Dublin, Grove City, Reynoldsburg and Westerville have all tested cameras recently, but none has committed to buying yet, officials said.

Crispin said the body cameras will give the Whitehall department the ability to review footage and train officers in best practices. They'll also provide helpful evidence for prosecuting crimes, writing reports and refuting false complaints.

He expects someday the devices could be as ubiquitous as dash cameras.

"In most professional work, you have a supervisor watching you close by, but police are on their own making life-and-death decisions every day," Crispin said. "The more technology (we have that) can help with that, the better we'll be as a profession."

But that doesn't mean buying cameras is without its challenges.

For many agencies — especially smaller, cash-strapped ones — a major obstacle is maintaining the footage produced by the cameras, which requires buying software and loads of storage space and training employees on how to use it. The devices aren't cheap, either, and technology is always changing.

But buy-in from officers is becoming less of an issue, chiefs said.

"When good police officers are doing their job the right way, body cameras are their best friend," Bexley Police Chief Larry Rinehart said. "We just haven't found the right application yet that's affordable for us."

Another potential issue is a lack of clarity on usage policies, Rinehart said.

Currently, departments create their own policies covering when body cameras should be turned on or off, how long videos should be stored and when the footage should be released to the public.

State Reps. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, and Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, introduced a bill in November aimed at creating a uniform state policy on what videos aren't public records. It was moved to a House committee but hasn't progressed.

Whitehall contracted with Lexipol, a company in Frisco, Texas, to develop its department's policies, Crispin said. Officials also sought the approval of the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board, a state group of law enforcement experts and community members that aims to improve relationships between police and citizens.

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said his organization typically doesn't support government surveillance, but body cameras can have benefits.

The group supports statewide policies that strike a balance between privacy and government transparency, he said. "Personal privacy is going to be impacted by the use of police body cameras, but if it brings greater police accountability, then we can live with that trade-off by and large," Daniels said.

Whitehall should have all its officers equipped by August, Crispin said.

The cameras have a recording device that connects to an officer's duty belt; they also have a lens that is about a square inch and clips onto a shirt or tie.

Officers will be expected to turn on their camera before interacting with the public. A light above the lens indicates the camera is recording. The camera can be configured for continuous background recording, which allows officers to temporarily obtain footage after an event, even if an officer hadn't pressed the record button beforehand.

Dublin and Reynoldsburg police hope to make a decision on body cameras soon, officials said.

"I would be surprised if we didn't go forward with them," Dublin Police Cpl. Michael McCaskey said. "They're good tools that are helping us do our jobs better."

©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.