Body cameras for Wauseon’s road officers were approved Monday by City Council, but their implementation could come with challenges and nagging questions regarding privacy.
In a unanimous vote, council members agreed to a recommendation by Police Chief Keith Torbet and the city’s Finance Committee to purchase six body cameras and a docking station from which to download the video. The police department hopes to have the system in place, at the latest, by the beginning of 2016.
Torbet said Tuesday the police department has tested body camera models the past two years. The search has been narrowed to the Top Dawg Eagle Eye, a relatively inexpensive model already tested, and a Reveal Media model which is currently being tested over a 30-day period. The latter includes a monitor that allows the officer to view the video later.
“We are proponents, but we wanted to make sure they’re rugged and easy to maintain,” Torbet said of the cameras.
The estimated total cost for six cameras, a docking station. and companion software is under $10,000. The purchases will be made through a drug seizure fund, and will not cost taxpayers.
The body cameras will be clipped to road officers’ shirts, lapels or belts. The individual officer will use their discretion regarding when to activate the camera while on duty.
“It’s another tool, like the cameras in the cars. The camera is meant to gather additional evidence for the benefit of the officer. The violation is right there,” Torbet said.
After the department began using dashboard cameras in patrol cars in the 1990s the need for officer testimony in court dropped dramatically, he said. The body cameras will further reduce that need.
“It gives an unbiased witness,” Torbet said.
Because purchasing a camera for every officer in the department is cost prohibitive, only those on road duty will use them. The chief said the system can be expanded if the need arises.
He said Wauseon’s police department is unlike many across the nation that are purchasing body cameras as a knee-jerk reaction to recent high-profile cases involving civilians being shot by officers.
“Our decision had absolutely nothing to do with anything going on outside of Wauseon. We’ve been planning this for years,” Torbet said.
However, he is aware that using body cameras could generate controversy. The department has a policy regarding the handling and proper use of the cameras, but because the State of Ohio is currently looking at regulating their use the policy is continually updated.
In some cases, a body camera could work against an officer, since the camera image may not exactly be the way the officer saw an incident. And due to privacy issues, the video footage may have to be edited prior to public release.
Eric Nagel, a Wauseon prosecuting attorney, said the obstacles police face by using body cameras are more administrative–in terms of cost and policy adoption–than legal. Ohio law permits the use of a recording device when one of the parties involved knows of and consents to its use.
“The use of technology is not the real issue. The issue is whether it should be mandated, and if so, by whom,” Nagel said.
The true challenge to law enforcement agencies would appear if recording systems became mandatory and a situation arose in which a video system failed to work or record an incident, he said.
“The effect that a lack of video in any given situation, once courts and/or jurors come to expect the same, may also have negative effects on how jurors perceive testimony from witnesses themselves,” Nagel said. “Are we to discredit the testimony of people who have actually perceived and witnessed something simply because a recording was not made?”
Adapting to what courts and juries will expect with advancements in science and technology is an ongoing concern, he added.
The potential for controversy aside, Torbet said his concern is that the body cameras be used for the greater good of his department and the public.
“It’s what’s best for our officers and citizens,” he said.
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.