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Indianapolis Becomes Last Top-20 City to Roll Out Body Cams

Among the 20 most populous cities in the U.S., only Indianapolis was without body-worn cameras for its police force. Now the police force has signed a contract and is in the process of rolling them out.

by Elizabeth DePompei, The Indianapolis Star / September 22, 2020
Lt. Scott Kulig, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) body worn camera system administrator, demonstrates IMPD's new body-worn police cameras on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. TNS

(TNS) — Nearly 400 Indianapolis police officers are now equipped with body-worn cameras, and hundreds more will follow suit in the coming months. 

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's body-worn camera program has been years in the making, with leaders and community members calling for the new technology as a path to more transparency and accountability. 

Those demands were revived once more after several high-profile fatal shootings of Black people by police officers, both nationally and locally.

But experts and police warn the technology alone can't deliver on promises. Any potential benefits of body-worn cameras hinge on how the technology is used. And even in the best case scenario, research on the impact of body-worn cameras is mixed.

BODY CAMERAS COME TO INDIANAPOLIS

Indianapolis is the last of the country's 20 most-populated cities to adopt a police body camera program, according to an IndyStar analysis. City leaders have discussed them for more than a decade, and the city ran two pilot programs. Both hit dead ends, with leaders citing financial and technological constraints.

Then on May 12, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and IMPD Chief Randal Taylor announced the department would implement a full body-worn camera program by the summer.

The announcement came just days after IMPD officers fatally shot 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed and 19-year-old McHale Rose in separate incidents. Portions of the Reed shooting were shown on his Facebook Live, but there's much the video doesn't show. No known video exists of the Rose shooting. 

By July, IMPD signed a $9.2 million contract with Utility, Inc. to equip 1,100 officers with body cameras for five and a half years. The program started rolling out in early August and as of last week, 375 officers were equipped with cameras.

'WE STILL DON'T KNOW' THE IMPACT

IMPD's policies for body-worn cameras state the department "is committed to creating transparency, ensuring accountability, and enhancing public trust by effectively using body-worn cameras."

Lt. Scott Kulig, IMPD's body-worn camera program administrator, said footage can be used for criminal investigations, use of force reviews and officer safety, among other things.

"The camera system is multifaceted," Kulig said. "It can help the community. It helps the officers, it helps the prosecutor's office. It helps everybody involved."

But a study from George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy shows that the results of police body camera programs are mixed, and possibly overestimated. 

The study, which was a review of 70 studies on body cameras, looked at the impact on things like use of force, police and citizen behavior and community relationships. 

Cynthia Lum, director of the George Mason center and one of the study's authors, said research does not definitively show whether body cameras impact any of those factors. But there are two areas where body cameras seem to be effective: in reducing citizen complaints against officers and as evidence in criminal cases. 

"Both these two things... are not as aligned with the initial ideas that citizens had with regards to body-worn cameras in the first place," Lum said. "We still don’t know if body-worn cameras can strengthen accountability infrastructure in policing or adjust officer behavior."

'A RIGHT TO SEE IT' APPROACH

The Cincinnati Police Department, which has around 1,000 sworn officers, started using body cameras in 2016. It's one example of how body camera programs play out in real life. 

Kristen Cosgrove, CPD's special project coordinator who oversees the body camera program, said the department has taken a "voluntary release stance," releasing video to the public as long as it isn't subpoenaed by the prosecutor's office for a criminal case. 

"It's an accurate reflection of what has occurred and the public has a right to see it and be involved in this process," Cosgrove said. "We have seen great benefit in that approach, I believe."

Indianapolis' system will work differently. 

Kulig said IMPD will have to work with the prosecutor's office before releasing footage related to criminal cases. Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears said he will defer to the courts on whether to release such footage. A person can petition a court for the footage, and a court can force its release if it deems it would be in the public's best interest. 

"So I don’t really see the prosecutor's role as saying, 'Hey you can release this or not,'" Mears said."Because ultimately it's up to a court, and those provisions are outlined in the statute."

CPD Public Information Officer Lt. Steve Saunders said he thinks the cameras make officers and citizens consider their actions "and may have an effect on outcomes" of those interactions. 

"There have been times when we catch our officers doing or saying bad things," Saunders said. "So officers know they have to be on their Ps and Qs when they're interacting with the public."

But statistically, there's very little to show whether the body cameras have changed police or citizen behavior in Cincinnati. Cosgrove said there have been no significant changes in the number of use of force incidents, but that there has been a decline in the number of citizen complaints filed. 

'WE'RE STILL SKEPTICAL'

Iris Roley, a longtime and prominent Cincinnati activist, said the community is generally appreciative of the city's investment in its body camera program.

"But we're still skeptical," she said. 

Roley pointed to body camera footage of former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Raymond Tensing fatally shooting Sam Dubose during a traffic stop in July 2015. Tensing was tried for murder twice, and both ended in mistrials. Charges were ultimately dismissed and Tensing received a $350,000 settlement from the university. 

"Just because you see it doesn't mean the discipline will match what you saw," Roley said of the Tensing case, noting it did not involve city police. 

Police and experts, including IMPD's Kulig, agree that body cameras aren't a panacea for distrust in the community.

"It's definitely not a cure-all just to add body-worn cameras," Kulig said. "Trust is always built slowly, so that’s going to take some time to do."

Lum said the success of a program is less about the technology and more about the policies and "accountability infrastructure" behind them.

Jeremy Carter, the director of criminal justice and public safety at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis' Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, remembered something Lum said when she spoke about body cameras in Indianapolis a couple of years ago.

"She made the point... that both the community and the police are in favor of an expensive technology because both parties don’t trust one another," Carter said. "So it speaks to what's the core issue, and the core issue is not, 'do we have these cameras or not.'

"But it’s 'what’s eroding the trust? What's going on that leads to these things? And those things are not easily solved by just strapping a piece of hardware to an officer’s chest."

©2020 The Indianapolis Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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