Detroit cops to get body, dash cams

George Hunter, and Holly Fournier

Detroit — City and police officials announced plans Tuesday to launch the nation’s first law enforcement video system that would integrate body cameras and in-car dashboard cameras.

The announcement makes Detroit the latest in a growing number of Michigan police departments to use body cameras, which experts say can exonerate officers falsely accused of wrongdoing or uphold citizen complaints about police misconduct. With controversies brewing across the country regarding the use of force by police officers, more departments are equipping officers with body cameras.

This video still shows the video image captured by a Detroit Police officer's body camera during a recent arrest. The suspect's face has been intentionally blurred to protect his identity.

“Our goal is to build a police department where all interactions between officers and citizens are recorded,” Mayor Mike Duggan said. “Full transparency is the best way to build trust.”

Thirty-nine police departments in Michigan use body cameras or are looking into using them, according to the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. Among those using them are Bay City, which approved them this week, as well as New Baltimore, Roseville, Canton Township and the Macomb Sheriff’s Office.

“There are definitely issues with body cameras,” said Canton Township Police Lt. Scott Hughesdon, whose agency began using cameras in June. “A lot of people will think Big Brother is being intrusive. But the whole point is to capture anything controversial. It will protect both citizens and officers.”

Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality said cameras are important but not foolproof. He urged Duggan to restore full authority to the Detroit Police Commission to “guarantee ... certainty of punishment when police misbehave.”

“The police have been told that in many cases body cams will exonerate them,” Scott said in a statement. “But if the camera indeed shows instead that the officer is indeed acting in a way that is unlawful or contrary to police procedure, what will be the consequence to the officer?”

Detroit police officials will select a vendor and recommend a video system to the City Council and Detroit Board of Police Commissioners next month, Duggan said.

Only about half of the department’s 409 marked police cars have working dash cameras, but Duggan said during a press conference at police headquarters that the plan is to equip all cars with working cameras in the next 12 months. Also, beginning in early 2016, police officers will be issued body cameras, with full deployment within three years.

“I’m extremely excited ... to bring in technology that enhances transparency and improves our relationship with the community,” said Police Chief James Craig, who has advocated the use of body cameras since he came to Detroit in 2013. “It’s no secret when you look across the country that many communities are struggling with their relationship with the police. This will give us an opportunity to foster goodwill with the public, and exonerate officers accused of misconduct.”

Tuesday’s announcement follows a 90-day test of three camera systems that began in March and involved 20 officers from the 11th Precinct. Officers spent 30 days testing each system, donated by Tase Co., Innovative Solutions, and Data 911.

“The officers have concluded that the technology works, and the city of Detroit is establishing as its goal to build a police department where every officer interaction is recorded,” Duggan said. “This fall, our officers will be testing an integrated dash cam product.

“We started out thinking there would be one dash cam system and one body cam system ... but with the officers’ input, we think it may be possible to store it all on a single system,” Duggan said. “I believe we’ll be the first in the country to roll out an integrated system. I’m always nervous when you think about being the first in technology, but if it’s successful, you’ll see the rest of the country coming to Detroit to find out how to implement an integrated camera system.”

Detroit Police Officer John Siejutt, one of the officers who tested the body cam, talked about the new body cams and video in the squad cars for police officers during a press conference Tuesday at Detroit Police headquarters.

Duggan said the dash cameras will cost about $350,000, which is already in the department’s budget. Fully equipping officers with body cameras and purchasing storage equipment will cost about $3 million, which would be paid for from the police budget and federal grants, Duggan said.

During the test at the 11th Precinct, a body camera caught a suspect throwing a gun out of a car window, said Officer John Siejutt, a Special Operations officer who participated in the pilot program.

“The video captured the perp throwing the gun to the ground, when he claimed he didn’t have a gun,” Siejutt said.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he said of wearing the device. “Everyone is out there with a cellphone ... but now we can say we also have video, and we can tell the true story of what happened, and not just a snippet.”

The American Civil Liberties Union supports police body cameras, said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the agency’s Detroit office.

“The ACLU is supportive of police departments using body cameras provided there are appropriate policies in place to make it clear when they should be used and to protect everyone’s privacy,” he said. “The overall results show that they’re helpful for both citizens and police officers.”

Assistant Police Chief James White said officials worked on policy changes to address issues such as privacy.

“We looked at some agencies that had body cams, looked at the best practices and then developed our own policies,” White said. “There’ll be considerations for different types of crimes. Complainants can ask officers in some cases to turn them off, but we don’t want officers to be able to shut off their cameras without following proper protocol.”

Duggan said Freedom of Information Act requests for body camera footage will be handled the same as requests for dashboard camera video. “FOIA law allows us to hold back on releasing personally sensitive stuff,” he said.

Robert Stevenson, former Livonia police chief and director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed there are still many questions about body cameras.

“Do we record 24/7? Or should we only record when there’s an incident? Things can happen pretty fast, and if an officer doesn’t get a chance to turn on the camera, some people will say we’re trying to hide something.

“But in a situation where an officer should be reaching for his gun, we don’t want him reaching to turn on his body camera.”

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