LIMA – It’s been 13 months since police officers who patrol the streets of Lima first became equipped with body cameras.
It’s been a learning experience for all involved since that time. While perhaps not everyone in the Lima Police Department is giddy with excitement about the new cameras, the prevailing sentiment within the department is the cameras are a useful and necessary tool for officers and the public in general as police go about their daily business of keeping the streets of Lima safe.
Body camera discussions began in September 2016 following multiple complaints by citizens of alleged abuse at the hands of Lima police officers. Organizations that helped with the process of purchasing the cameras and crafting a policy outlining their use included the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office, Crime Victim Services, the Black Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, both major city hospitals and local schools.
The task of researching the equipment necessary in what would ultimately become an investment on the city’s part of nearly a half a million dollars proved to be time-consuming. Bids in the first round of proposals were all rejected when they failed to meet the specifications contained in the bid documents. It ultimately was more than two years before the cameras would become a reality. Lima council unanimously approved the purchase from the vendor WatchGuard in August of last year.
LPD Major James Baker, reflecting this week on the 13 months the cameras have been in use, said the time spent researching vendors and cameras in search of a perfect product fit was well worth it.
“It’s paid off big-time,” Baker said. “We’ve had amazingly few issues, and WatchGuard has been great about fixing those that we did have. The cameras have held up extremely well. We’re very happy with them, and the guys (cops) on the street love them.”
Baker gave an example of how the cameras help officers get bad guys off the streets.
“Early on, we had an incident at a local bar involving a man with a gun. The body cam video quality is so good that you can see his finger on the trigger of the gun,” the major said. “We would never have had something like that to show a jury in the past.”
In addition to the body cameras for patrol officers, the department’s hefty monetary outlay included the purchase of new cruiser cameras that are integrated with the body cams for what the police official called “greatly enhanced” video capabilities.
“An example of that is another case where our guys were pursuing a vehicle, and the suspect threw a gun out the window,” Baker said. “Because the cruiser camera is so good, we were able to locate the exact location where that occurred. We would never have been able to locate that gun before” the enhanced cameras were installed, Baker said.
While street cops may love the new body cameras, some detectives within the department — who are not required to wear the cameras — have hinted that the presence of the devices in some cases has kept information from being passed to patrol officers, who in turn alert detectives to statements that could assist in their criminal investigations.
“I’ve not heard that directly, but I can certainly see where that’s a possibility,” Baker admitted. “It could make some people reluctant to talk to an officer.”
Lt. Ronald Holman wears a body camera, as is required of every officer from the rank of lieutenant and below. Holman said the cameras are “simply another tool” patrol officers can rely on in the performance of their duties.
“We’ve had cruiser cameras since about 2000, so our officers are accustomed to being on camera,” Holman said. “There has been a learning curve with the body cams, but it hasn’t been as steep as if otherwise might have been. It’s gone extremely well.”
Chief Kevin Martin said the Lima Police Department made a “very significant investment with the hope of building the public’s trust and increasing transparency within the department to determine how we can better service the community. I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Martin said the cameras are another step in a line of checks and balances to hold officers accountable in instances where departmental policies and procedures are violated.
“It also provides positive feedback when officers are found to be doing the right things, which is an overwhelming majority of the time,” the chief said.
Baker said the process of storing video footage and addressing requests for public documents also has gone better than anticipated.
“So far, so good,” he said. “It does take a lot of time, but so far we have managed to handle it without having to hire an additional person. I think we’re OK at this point.”
Baker said requests for body cam footage to date has come primarily from the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office and from defense attorneys, although there have been some requests from the general public. When such a request is made, Martin said, it will be fulfilled “without hesitation, after checking with our law director” to assure that it is in accordance with all laws and policies.
Chris Ward, who works in the records department at the police department, said once a request is approved, she or another records employee must watch each video in its entirety, editing for things such as Social Security numbers or other private information that must be redacted. Videos are then provided as a cost of 75 cents, to cover the cost of a compact disc.
“It’s very time-consuming,” Ward said.
Baker said the department’s guidelines and policies concerning the use of body cameras and the handling of public records will be looked at annually.
“We just reviewed it and made some changes to make allowance for specific instances when our officers can turn off their cameras briefly and for what reasons they can do that,” he said.
Martin said some of those changes were made at the request of the same panel of community members who helped craft the policies in the first place.
Lima City Law Director Tony Geiger said tweaks to the policy were simply “clarifications to align the language of the policy to the expectations of the group” of community members providing input.
“Cameras have the ability to invade people’s privacy if they are running all the time,” Geiger said. “None of the instances during which cameras may be turned off include actual law enforcement activities but are geared more at investigations inside a person’s home where a recording could potentially be a violation of a person’s privacy.”
Need for change
The Allen County Sheriff’s Department does not equip its patrol officers with body cameras. It’s a decision based not on cost but on a philosophical stance taken by Sheriff Matt Treglia that reflect sentiments similar to those expressed by Geiger.
While some persons have suggested that Treglia is opposed to body cameras in their totality, the sheriff said nothing could be further from the truth.
“It’s not that I don’t like body cameras. My stance is that I want state legislators to enact laws that protect the victims of crime. It’s my duty to protect the victims in Allen County,” Treglia said.
“When it comes to body cameras on the street, I have no problem with that. But cameras inside someone’s home is different. That’s their castle, and they have every right to protect themselves and their privacy,” the sheriff continued.
“But the law as it’s currently written says that if a body camera comes inside your home, it’s all public record, and I refuse to put that all out there. If someone gets ahold of footage where a sexual assault or a murder took place, the next thing you know it’s on YouTube.
“Until the law is changed, I feel the best scenario I have is not to use them,” Treglia said.
He said Michigan is ahead of Ohio when it comes to crafting sensible laws governing body camera footage.
Baker agreed that handling of public records can be a slippery slope.
“I concur with Sheriff Treglia that technology has far outpaced legislation in this regard,” the LPD’s Baker said.