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I-Team: Majority of Cincinnati police still skeptical of body-worn cameras

Selective editing one of their concerns
Posted: 6:00 AM, Feb 20, 2017
Updated: 2017-02-20 23:48:48-05

CINCINNATI -- Law enforcement is like the old adage about sausage, Sgt. Dan Hils said: People like the outcome, but they don't like to see how it's done.

With police work, Hils said that's true "even done as above-board and as honest, as respectful to people as can be."

Six months after the Cincinnati Police Department began equipping its 660 officers with body-worn cameras, Hils said most of the men and women he represents as police union president remain skeptical.

"There is a general feeling amongst most street cops that even though these cameras will more often vindicate them of false accusations, they also recognize that if a situation goes bad ... they think that they might be judged in a Monday morning quarterback-type of a situation to where they won't be judged fairly," he said.

Cincinnati police officers are required to turn on their body-worn cameras for any contact with a person. Those encounters are often reduced to a few seconds of sight and sound.

Hils said a challenge is finding the balance between trusting public reaction to the video and supporting the department's commitment to transparency. Selective editing, for example, could cause a viewer to reach unfair conclusions.

"In general, it's something that (officers) don't necessarily have a full line of trust yet for the people who will be reviewing these things, and that goes all the way from police administration to city administration to society at large ... including the media," he said.

See the I-Team's footage from a tense situation in the department's firearms training simulator:

 

Despite the reservations, Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Issac said officers like knowing the video exists because it's extra documentation of what actually happened.

"Some of these discourtesy type complaints, some of the lower-level complaints, I think this gives us an opportunity to really resolve them without any confusion," Issac said.

Cincinnati police captured more than 95,000 videos in six months. The clips are stored in a cloud-based system from Taser International. Seven department employees manage the footage, and officers' immediate supervisors are supposed to conduct daily spot checks, Isaac said.

The department doesn't routinely track which officers use the cameras correctly or not. Of the 95,000 videos, only 5 percent have been reviewed due to public records requests from attorneys, the media and citizens. City records show prosecutors have already requested hundreds of clips, a practice that will likely increase in coming months and years.

"We're gathering hours and hours worth of video, and it is something that we, and a lot of other departments that go down this path, are going to have to deal with," Isaac said.

Records obtained by the I-Team show only three officers have self-reported they forgot to self-activate their cameras. Isaac said the large amount of video proves most officers are following the body-worn camera policy.

And body-worn cameras could change other, older department policies, too. For example, officers are required to get written consent when they ask for permission to search a person. Instead, that permission could be documented on video, Isaac said.

"There are a lot of things that we captured by hand or just writing out, now they're captured on video," he said.

City Manager Harry Black praised the body-worn camera rollout as "a resounding success" but said it's still too early to determine the program's strengths and weaknesses. At some point, he and Isaac said the city would review the program and policies to see what needs to be tweaked or improved.

"I anticipate that early on, there will be some mistakes made, but I think just like anything else, the more you do it, the better they become accustomed to it, the better you are at it," Isaac said.

Hils said he thinks the grace period is good. And he said he hopes people who watch any footage remember each clip doesn't tell the whole story.

"You have 100 things all on your mind at once, and now we're adding one more -- make sure you turn on your camera."