• VIDEO: Click here to see the new body-worn cameras that the Bellevue Police Department is using.
* * * * *
When Bellevue Police Lt. Robert Wood is called to a disturbance, one piece of his equipment tends to get the most attention: a small camera mounted on his uniform to silently record everything that happens.
“A lot of times, if someone is worked up and aggressive, I watch their eyes kind of flick down and look at that camera,” Wood said. “Sometimes that calms the situation down, because people don't want to look bad on film.”
Small video cameras that attach to an officer's eyewear or clothing are emerging as a cutting-edge method to further monitor law enforcement's interactions with the public. The cameras can give officers — and citizens — an exact record and a new perspective when an incident unfolds away from a police cruiser.
Most area law enforcement agencies, including the Omaha Police Department, are up-to-date with the country's cruiser video movement. But few apart from Bellevue have tried body-worn cameras.
In Omaha, a citizen video from a controversial north Omaha arrest has heightened scrutiny on Omaha police and led to calls for broader police oversight.
For some agencies around the country, the body-worn cameras have shown potential to bolster the amount of evidence available for criminal and internal investigations.
The technology is in its infancy. The recording systems, which have yet to be broadly adopted across the country, can be costly. Plus the thought of potentially having an officer's every move recorded can be met with skepticism and resistance from the rank and file and their union representatives.
Now that digital video recorders have spread widely to people's cellphones, several departments are beginning to experiment with the new method of oversight.
A few Bellevue officers have experimented with body-worn cameras for about a year, using their own money to buy different models. Wood said he's even used the resulting footage as evidence in a few cases, and the cameras can be handy for interviewing suspects and victims.
Other agencies see the benefits, too.
“You're going to see a growth in body-worn cameras, much like you've seen with in-car video,” said Maj. Christopher Wiles of the Danville, Va., Police Department, which has deployed a growing number of officer-worn cameras in the past 18 months.
“That started small. And as time goes on, of course, the technology becomes more affordable and compact. It becomes easier to deploy, and as other agencies use it, you start to see it adopted across the nation.”
The recorders' size is important, especially on an officer's crowded utility belt. Bellevue's cameras are about as large as a pager and clip onto an officer's pocket. Another sleek model — produced by the Taser brand best known for its stun guns — clips easily to sunglasses, baseball caps or uniforms.
“This is very much in the infant stages, but I personally think this is going to be the future,” Bellevue Police Chief Mark Elbert said.
Before the cameras are widely used, however, the department will need to develop policies to ensure that the video is admissible as evidence. For example, the cameras are tripped manually, which means the officer can decide when to start and stop the recording. Some cameras come bundled with software that allows only evidence managers to handle the data.
“We need to make sure we're not editing in the field, so the integrity of the document is held in check,” Elbert said.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov is onboard.
“Bellevue's ahead of the curve,” he said, noting that the Omaha incident would have been viewed differently had the officers been wearing cameras.
“The officers who went into the house would have protection against false claims, and the public would have confidence that they had the whole story,” he said.
Part of law enforcement's attraction to video technology hinges on that idea: Recorded footage can provide an indisputable view of an incident.
New Omaha police cameras are now rolling in the city's front-line cruisers. Cameras in Sarpy County cruisers are activated when the deputy hits the lights, or they can be turned on manually, Lt. Dan Shukis said.
One Sarpy deputy experimented with a small body-camera mounted on his dispatch radio, but found it too bulky, Shukis said.
“I think we're pretty up to speed,” he said of the department's technology.
The Nebraska State Patrol doesn't use body cameras, but it updated cruiser-based systems from VHS to digital a few years ago at a cost of $1.7 million, spokeswoman Deb Collins said.
Douglas County sheriff's cruisers also have digital cameras activated by the light racks. When an officer comes off duty, the cruiser's video is downloaded to a server, Chief Deputy Marty Bilek said. The agency replaced the cruisers' VHS-based systems about five years ago.
Wiles of Virginia said that while in-car camera systems are widely used, they capture few officer activities that happen away from a cruiser. If properly used, he said, body-worn cameras can vastly augment evidence-gathering or training procedures by showing exactly what a police officer sees.
“Think about how much more interaction a police officer has away from that vehicle,” Wiles said. “Just think how much more interaction that body-worn camera can capture in terms of officer safety, public safety and professionalism. To me, it's just a very positive step toward protecting officers, protecting citizens and helping to ensure professional conduct.”
Wiles said the body-worn cameras were met with some initial resistance by officers, but attitudes have changed.
“Those guys, you couldn't take it away from them now,” he said.
The new technology has the support of Jason Cvitanov, an 18-year police veteran and president of the Bellevue Police Officer's Association. Cvitanov said he hasn't heard any complaints from patrol officers.
“I remember when car cameras came out — there were some nerves about it,” he said. “But it's been a positive. ... We're held to a standard, and this just reinforces that.”
Bilek, from Douglas County, acknowledged that the evidence could “cut both ways” but that Douglas County officials realize the technology's use is growing.
“I suppose, given the fact that the technology is so cheap and the cams so small — and computer storage is so cheap — it's just a matter of time before video's everywhere,” he said.
Deputy Omaha Police Chief Elizabeth Davis said the emerging technology needs to be looked at, but with a degree of caution.
“I do know that you just want to be very careful buying any technology straight off the shelf, the first iteration of it,” she said. “Sometimes when you get out there too soon, you're investing money that just goes down the drain.”
Funding such technology isn't just limited to buying cameras, which can cost around $1,000 apiece. The more substantial cost can come when departments buy software and equipment to store and upload video data.
But Davis said grants and federal dollars might someday help fund cameras.
“Once the grants become available, that's when vendors come out of the woodwork as well. That's when you have to be careful about the products and support you buy.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1216, email@example.com