August 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

Police in Mich. testing bodycams, but cost and privacy issues raise concern

A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles in January. Officers with the Detroit, Farmington Hills, Macomb County Sheriff's Office and Michigan State Police have tested the viability of bodycams. (Damian Dovarganes / AP)

As national pressure grows for police to use body cameras more widely, departments across Metro Detroit are studying the feasibility and cost of the miniature recording devices.

Officers with the Detroit, Farmington Hills, Macomb County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police have tested the viability of bodycams, but the cost of outfitting full staffs is a concern among many department officials.

The bodycam issue is in the forefront of a national debate as a result of the shooting death of an African-American teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Advocates say had the officer been wearing a camera, details of what led to the incident would be more clear and might have stemmed some of the anger that led to nights of rioting and continued protests.

Some federal lawmakers also are calling for police departments to adopt the technology — which can be worn on an officer’s uniform and record hours of interactions with citizens — or risk losing federal funding.

For now, most area police departments say they are studying the issue and none has made it standard. Some say the immediate need is making sure patrol cars have usable dashboard cameras to record police interactions.

“We do have body cameras that we use in undercover purposes,” said Lt. Mike Shaw, spokesman for the State Police. He added that in the Metro Post area one of the bicycle officers who patrols Belle Isle is wearing a bodycam as a test.

Shaw pointed out two drawbacks: Each camera costs about $1,000, making it cost-prohibitive for the MSP force of about 1,300. Secondly, battery life is about four hours. With troopers working 12-hour shifts, they’d have to replace them about three times during each shift.

However, “we do know that our citizen complaints drop dramatically when they know that they are being recorded,” he added.

In Detroit, 18 police officers and two supervisors in the 2nd Precinct took part in a 30-day bodycam pilot program in April.

“The pilot program was a success, and we would love to be able to have bodycams for our officers,” Detroit Police Chief James Craig said.

“They add transparency to what we do, but they also protect officers and help eliminate frivolous lawsuits.”

During the trial, a bodycam captured an incident where an officer used force to restrain a citizen. “It wouldn’t have been captured by the camera in the squad car,” Deputy Chief David LeValley said, adding the camera showed the officer’s actions to be justified.

“The officers who used them found that once citizens realized they were being recorded, they tended to de-escalate their conduct,” LeValley said.

The obstacle is funding, Craig said, and if money was available he would fully support buying cameras for all officers.

Privacy issues raise concern

Farmington Hills Police Chief Chuck Nebus said his department has been “experimenting” with a few models of body cameras loaned to them by manufacturers, but have not bought any or committed to buying any.

“I do believe body cameras are the wave of the future — in five to seven years I suspect they will replace in-car cameras, the technology is that good,” said Nebus, who has a master’s degree in technology.

The proliferation of different versions will require departments to do their homework, he said.

“Do you use a model that is worn on eyeglasses or one that is on the uniform or the shoulder?” he said. “Will that capture enough of a total view of a scene or subject for your purposes?”

Nebus said citizen privacy issues need to be discussed, as well.

“Every rape victim, every injured person will be on film and at what point does that possibly became an invasion of privacy issue?” he said.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard concurred, saying some members of the community have said they would not be comfortable with deputies videotaping their every movement and word.

“You might have situations where people aren’t entirely clothed or in emergency situations they would find embarrassing,” Bouchard said. Anything recorded would be available to the public and news media through the Freedom of Information Act request, he added.

Southfield Police Deputy Chief Nick Loussia said as part of his department’s testing of models in the next few weeks, they will also research policy for how the cameras will be used.

Deputy Chief Donald Glandon of the Roseville Police Department said bodycams are probably on the horizon, but it is a question of can they be implemented with the system the 62-member department uses. For now, 10 patrol cars are equipped with cameras with audio capability.

Russell Marlan, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said guards don’t use the bodycams and the department has no immediate plans to do so. Wayne County also said its deputies don’t use the cameras.

Added costs, added weight

Sheriff Anthony Wickersham of Macomb County said his department has been looking at bodycams for a few months and tested a couple of models, but hasn’t made a decision. The priority, he said, is updating all of the in-car camera systems. That could cost about $400,000 for 65 vehicles.

Bouchard said his department’s focus in recent years also has been to enhance and improve the quality of its in-car cameras. He said microphone capability has increased significantly as well.

Of body cameras, he said: “We did a recent study and it would cost $1.5 million just for the equipment. That’s not including the training, the overtime we would have to pay to officers to make the transition.”

Robert Stevenson, retired Livonia police chief and current executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police said departments are interested in bodycams to help safeguard against accusations made against officers, but said they are still a pretty expensive tool.

“I see it as a supplement to in-car cameras, which run around $3,000,” Stevenson said. “Now the body camera may only cost about $900 but you have to maintain and store your recordings. How long do you keep them? Thirty to 90 days? Where do you keep them?

“You also get into a situation where if the camera doesn’t work for some reason defense attorneys jump on it and say police are trying to cover something up.”

While the cameras and their support equipment could be another tool for police to protect themselves and the public, one other question is raised by Nebus: How much more equipment can officers be expected to carry?

Officers carry at least 29 pounds of weapons and tools on their belts, he said.

“There really is no room for much more,” Nebus said.

LeValley said the chief compliant of Detroit officers who used body cameras was they were a bit cumbersome.

“They said the cameras made for too many systems to use, too many things going on at one time,” he said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com
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