Ames Police look to implement body cameras


Chris Jorgensen/Iowa State Daily

A body camera worn by an ISUPD officer.

Danielle Gehr

The Ames Police Department is looking into body cameras for their team a year after the ISU Police Department and around four years after the Story County Sheriff’s Office.

Cmdr. Geoff Huff of the Ames Police said they hope to deploy body cameras by June 2018. Public outcry after officer involved shootings has led departments around the country to implement them.

With no laws requiring police to have body cameras, the decision to get them and the policy surrounding them varies from department to department.

“We all talk in law enforcement and so departments will write their policy and then we will say, ‘Hey, can we get a copy of your policy and look to see what you’re doing and then we’ll kind of write ours,’” Huff said. “So, we share a lot of this stuff and then you’ve got other organizations that have come out with recommendations.”

These groups include the ACLU and NAACP, with whom the Ames Police held a forum and who mainly had concerns over the privacy of the public.

Huff said because of these organizations and communication, most of the policies turn out to be more similar. He said one of the benefits of waiting to get body cameras is they can see what has worked for the other departments as far as vendors and policy.

Body cameras at the ISU Police

The ISU Police piloted the body cameras in late 2016 and had full implementation by early 2017. They went with a company called L3.

The Ames Police are considering both L3 and a company called WatchGuard.

For the ISU Police, the main motivation to buy body cameras was transparency.

“So this technology was in the early stages the last couple years and there were some glitches and technology issues that we had with the cameras that we had purchased,” said Chief Michael Newton, of the ISU Police. “The first generation that this company provided would sometimes just spontaneously start recording without turning them on and they immediately fixed that stuff.”

Now that they have the second generation L3, these issues have resolved. The body cameras typically last around three to five years.

L3 sells a variety of law enforcement equipment and supplies in-car cameras for the ISU Police as well.

Newton said the ISU Police are in the process of deciding what they want to do long term for in-car and body cameras, so they may see what the Ames Police decides on and take that into consideration as well.

Officer Kaitlyn Boor, who has worked with the ISU Police since April 2015, hasn’t found many issues with wearing the body cameras besides sometimes forgetting to turn it on.

“I guess to me when I first started this job, I think that was kind of an expectation that I was going to be monitored in a way during any interaction I had with the community,” Boor said.

Before body cameras, police started using in-car cameras with microphones on their belt. Newton said when this began there was discomfort about being recorded, but as years passed, officers adjusted to it.

“I think everybody around here is actually pretty open to them,” Boor said. “The only time that where we kind of fret is when we have to go to the bathroom or something like that. We’re like looking down making sure that they’re off.”

Parts of the community don’t like being recorded by officers and many will ask if they are being recorded which the police are then required to tell them, “Yes.” If the officers are asked if they can turn the recording off, typically the answer is no.

Boor said she feels it helps the community because “if an officer acted poorly during a certain situation, then we have these to fall back on.”

“Everybody wants transparency until it’s them that’s being recorded and then they’re not so big on transparency anymore,” Huff said.

Cmdr. Huff said the Ames Police will likely have certain exceptions to this rule such as during interviews with victims or when responding to a robbery in someone’s home who doesn’t want them to record inside their house.

Boor has not had anyone ask her if she can stop recording.

Newton said the footage helps resolve community complaints about officers. Typically, the footage clears the officers name, Newton said.

Supervisors will randomly select footage to review and will also use it as a training tool. When using the video as evidence, officers often have to watch themselves in action. Some may find this cringy to hear their voice and see their mannerisms, but Boor sees it differently.

“To me it’s always more so intriguing reliving a situation more than cringing or anything like that,” Boor said.

Body cameras at the Story County Sheriff’s Office

Sgt. Nicholas Lennie of the Story County Sheriff’s Office said their officers began using body cameras around 2013 and 2014. They started with a vender called Smith and Wesson which provided extra footage and evidence for investigations but came with its issues.

The original cameras lacked the storage capability and battery life needed by the officers who use the cameras throughout their shifts.

After moving to Digital Ally, the Story County Sheriff’s Office switched to the vender Panasonic Arbitrator which they use today for both their in-car vehicles and body cameras.

Last month, the Story County deputies began using the Mark III camera which Sgt. Lennie said has excellent battery life and other helpful features.

The camera connects with the deputies’ vehicles and certain actions trigger the camera to turn on such as if they turn on their emergency lights, the G-force if a deputy gets into a car accident or if the deputy turns off the lock on their long gun.

The only issue with the camera he said was they are large and bulky, but hopes as technology advances, this problem will be resolved in future generations of the cameras.

Lennie said they implemented cameras before there was really a public outcry for officers to wear them because the office is always trying to explore new technologies that could benefit their department.

The main motivation to buy the cameras came from wanting more evidence for their investigations though they have helped resolve complaints against deputies.

Lennie said the deputies are not only comfortable with the cameras, but when something happens to their footage they feel lost without it. Huff sees the Ames Police having a similar outlook.

“I think starting out there’ll be some people that are uncomfortable,” Huff said. “But I think that they will get used to it and I think we’ll all kind of get used to it, so I don’t think that there’ll be big issues and I think what they’ll find is they are catching good evidence and they’re going to like that.”

An issue with perspective

Though the body cameras are a step up from an officer’s word, there are still issues since the one perspective the footage shows doesn’t tell the whole story.

There may be something on the screen that the officer viewer clearly sees, but the officer did not. The higher resolution a camera may make an object look clearly visible when it was too dark for the officer to see.

This is why night-vision cameras typically aren’t bought by departments.

“One thing we always caution people though is even though we may have something on video, it doesn’t tell the full story either,” Huff said. “So, there’s things you’re not going to see, there’s things you’re going to see on the video that the officer didn’t see because they weren’t looking in that direction.”

This is something that must be explained to juries as footage is brought to court.

The fixed point of view causes issues during officer involved shootings. Typically the camera is centered on the chest and when shooting the camera is obscured by the officer’s limbs.

Boor said the best way to resolve this issue is to have two or more officers on scene, so the camera picks up as many angles as possible.

“It definitely helps if we have two or more officers on a call because we’re not standing side by side — somebody’s behind the other person or on the side and we’re kind’ve direct on with the person that we’re dealing with,” Boor said.