Police say complaints have dropped thanks to body cameras

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HENDERSON, Ky. (AP) — The cameras are rolling, and the Henderson Police Department couldn't appreciate it more.

One year after equipping officers with body cameras, police officials told The Gleaner that the new tool is assisting in many ways, but in particular - conflict resolution.

"Body cameras make it easier to review things," said HPD Major Jermaine Poynter. "When people call and they're upset about things saying, 'An officer was rude to me or did this,' before it was their word against the officer's. Now, we can pull up the video and review it.

"We tell them, 'We've got the footage. You're welcome to come watch it and discuss it with us,'" he said.

"A lot of times, the complaint ends right there," Poynter said. "Because often they are just mad and want to complain. They hear we have cameras, they say, 'Oh you've got body cams, never mind. I don't need to file a complaint.' "

"Supervisors have said it's easier to prove or disprove a complaint because they pull the footage. They can watch it in real time and see exactly what was said."

Poynter said that when there are complaints which prove to be legitimate, the video "gives us guidelines."

"We see that we might need to do some training or counseling, and maybe even take disciplinary actions. We have found a few training issues. It wasn't necessarily that the officer did anything wrong. More like he/she could have done it better. Our training unit is made aware of the situation, and they'll conduct classes/training to try to correct the problem in the future," he said.

"But for the most part, we're seeing that our officers are doing what we thought they were doing. They were out there doing the right thing. So that's good."

Since Aug. 7, 2018, HPD has recorded 41,180 videos from the 50 cameras attached to the uniforms of patrol officers. There is also a camera in each police unit.

"We are sharing videos with the county attorney's office and the Commonwealth's Attorney's office," Poynter said. "I think it helps with the court system to allow them to get their stuff so they can prove/argue their cases when they are in trials."

County Attorney Steve Gold said the body cameras have some limitations, but still provide a needed perspective of events.

"While body-worn cameras aren't perfect, I think they are essential in the modern criminal justice system," he said. "They not only document interactions that civilians have with law enforcement, but they preserve evidence and provide context that is vital in good decision-making."

As an example, Poynter said that when officers arrived at the scene of the shooting near Thomason's Banquet Hall — which ended in the death of an Evansville man — the body cameras were rolling.

With investigations like the murder there, he said, "It gives us a look at the scene when officers first get there. It gives a glimpse of potential witnesses and even possibly potential suspects leaving the area or who might still be in the area.

"Video footage might show us pieces of evidence we may not have caught on scene. And then we see it on the video and backtrack because we spotted something."

As another example, Gold said body cam video has also led to charges being dismissed. "Not because of officer misconduct," he said, "but because it gave important context to witness statements that a written report could never capture."

Depending on the incident or nature of the crime, video is stored from six months to three years.

"We went with Utility Co., because they had unlimited data. Roughly, 41,000 videos amounts to a lot of data," Poynter said. "With this contract, we have unlimited cloud storage, maintenance, and we aren't getting charged for the amount of data we are pushing."

The equipment itself has held up well, Poynter said, with the department experiencing "minor technical issues."

However, he said, when any of the pieces malfunction, the company replaces them in a matter of days. "The company has been great to work with," he said.

The body cameras, the maintenance, upkeep and other components of the contract with Utility Co., cost roughly $485,000. The payments have been divided during a five-year period, Poynter said.

A year after their introduction, Poynter said officers have acclimated well to the equipment.

"It didn't take officers long to get in the hang of switching them on," he said. "It gives them insurance. When someone complains, they can say, 'No I have this on bodycam and I know what I did.'"

"Overall, officers seem to like it," he said.

Local Attorney Don Thompson, who has served as a prosecutor and as defense counsel, said body cams are "a good tool which documents events.

"However, this is fairly new technology which continues to evolve. The body cameras don't have 360-degree capabilities, so they only get a view from straight on. Therefore, there can be shortcomings. But the goal is to get an accurate account of what happened through the use of body cam footage.

"Whether you're a defense attorney or a prosecutor, you strive for justice, not just win or lose," Thompson said. "The body cameras are tools which can help with that."

The Henderson County Sheriff's Office equipped its deputies with body cameras approximately 11 years ago.

"It's all up, there are no downs. We are extremely satisfied," said Henderson County Sheriff Ed Brady. "There are two reasons we really like them — using them for court. In many cases, if defense attorneys see video before trial, they settle. The second, if there is a citizen complaint, we can clear up most in five minutes. It's probably one of the best things we've done."

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