LMPD :: Louisville Metro Police Department

Louisville police to carry body cameras


When police in Clarksville, Ind., started wearing small cameras to record interactions with the public 2 1/2 years ago, some officers were concerned because there were few policies guiding their use and most other area departments didn't have them.

But Chief Mark Palmer hoped the move would bolster public trust and increase police accountability.

"I hoped they would see that we're trying to be transparent in our actions," Palmer said.

Law enforcement agencies across the country, including Louisville Metro Police, are hoping for the same as they look to add the cameras in the wake of a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that left an unarmed black teen dead. Many in the country were outraged when a grand jury didn't indict the white officer who fired on the teen, and some say cameras could have helped show what happened.

Just last week, President Barack Obama announced he intends to ask Congress for $75 million to help local law enforcement agencies acquire the body cameras to "build and sustain trust" between police and the communities they serve.

In Louisville, the rollout of the cameras has been delayed, but Police Chief Steve Conrad said he hopes to have a pilot program running in June 2015.

Louisville police tested various body cameras in spring 2013, said Major Robert Schroeder, who heads the department's Administrative Services Division. But unexpected costs to store recorded video derailed the plan to begin the pilot program last June, he said.

"The elephant in the room is Ferguson, wanting to get these cameras quickly," Schroeder said. "There's a lot of misconceptions about how police operate in what they do. The video is going to show you what happened."

Locally, the cameras are in the works for Jeffersonville Police in Southern Indiana, and the Bullitt County Sheriff's Office in Kentucky already uses them.

"We really do want to get these out as soon as we can," Schroeder said. "It's not like we're dragging our feet."

More than 2,600 people have signed an online petition demanding the immediate implementation of the cameras among Louisville police. The number of signatures on the petition has doubled since the Ferguson grand jury decision.

Petitioners say they hope to see more transparency and mediation and less use of force from police if the cameras are used. They also suggest creating a review board to look at hypothetical situations where the cameras are not used in accordance with standard operating procedures.

"Technology advances are taking away some of the mystery behind what is and isn't classified as justifiable deadly force by police," reads the petition, which started on Oct. 30.

The issue also arose at a community meeting sponsored by the Urban League the night of the Ferguson grand jury decision, where the police department's status on the cameras was questioned.

Conrad said he hopes to test the cameras in patrol division 5, which covers the Highlands, Clifton and Cherokee and Seneca Park areas next year. By summer 2016, the remaining patrol officers would be equipped with the cameras, he said.

Metro Councilwoman Attica Scott said the sooner the cameras are in use, the better.

"It lets the community know the police department is willing to be a partner in community safety and lets folks know they can have some trust of police," she said.

Louisville police solicited bids for body cameras and a storage system in October, and a committee is evaluating the submissions. Finding a way to store the thousands of hours of footage from hundreds of body cameras is the main challenge, Schroeder said.

A head-based cam - attachable to glasses or a hat - emerged as the preference in the testing phase, Conrad said, and should cost around $700,000 to outfit the 800-900 patrol officers.

At the same time, police are working with the city's technology department to look into in-house data storage and how video can be cataloged and accessed, Conrad said.

In Clarksville, Palmer attributed a fall in civilian complaints about the police to the cameras. Officers, knowing they're on camera, are more mindful of their initial interaction with the public, he said.

But while body cameras might offer some answers by documenting police interactions, they also raise new sets of questions, said Lawrence Travis, a professor at the University of Cincinnati's School of Criminal Justice.

They're the same questions asked by area police officials as they adopt the technology.

Where will the video be stored securely? What will the video-retention policy be? Who can view the video? When will the cameras be used? What are the costs to maintain such a system? How will the cameras affect the police-community relationship?

Despite the policy, privacy and access questions, Travis said the mere presence of a camera can have a mutually beneficial effect on both citizens and law enforcement.

"Citizens tend to be more calm, respectful, and compliant when dealing with officers," when told they are being recorded, Travis said in an email. "Over time ...most officers learn that the presence of the camera is an advantage" as they can aid in the prosecution of a suspect or help exonerate officers accused of misbehavior.

Provided thorough policies are in place, the American Civil Liberties Union supports police use of the technology.

"The challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. "

"The challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability," reads a national 2013 ACLU report. A framework of "strong policies to protect the public" is necessary, senior policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote, otherwise, "their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks."

Schroeder said Louisville police have a draft body camera policy, based off recommendations and model policies from nonprofits, including the Police Executive Research Forum and The International Association of Chiefs of Police, and Community Oriented Policing Services, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Despite those resources, Schroeder, Conrad and Palmer all said more court rulings and national guidelines on police body cameras will help answer the many questions spurred by the technology and standardize the patchwork of varying law enforcement policy.

And while the cameras can record an event, their use might not lay all questions to rest.

Travis cites security video footage of a November police shooting of a 12-year-old boy who was in possession of an airsoft gun - which fires plastic pellets - in a Cleveland park. His death has sparked weeks of protests and added fuel to the Ferguson flames.

"The recordings are evidence, but the evidence has to be interpreted," Travis said. "Cameras may not make too much difference in the most controversial situations."

Even before the shooting in Ferguson, Clarksville's Chief Palmer said he saw a not-too-distant future where body cameras would be required equipment for police. That future is now, he said.

"I don't think you're ever going to get back to a point where we don't have the cameras," he said. "It's just going to continue to expand."