ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Within two weeks, about half of St. Louis County police officers will be recording every call for service using tiny video cameras on their chests, glasses or collars.
Several companies are lending free technology to police departments in hope of landing lucrative contracts in an industry that surged after a national outcry about the Ferguson police shooting. In St. Louis County, 188 police officers will be using cameras in the north and central county precincts, as well as in Jennings and Dellwood.
About two dozen officers from the county police received cameras and training on Tuesday. Chief Jon Belmar said his goal is to have all 465 patrol officers wearing them as soon as possible.
For the next 90 days, the department will experiment with different types of cameras and approaches. Some officers will be assigned cameras, some will share among shifts. The experience will help officials decide which devices to buy, and how many.
“Given the events in Ferguson and the skepticism that’s been directed at law enforcement, we have to take steps to ensure the public trust,” Belmar said.
Noting the wide prevalence of surveillance and cellphone video, he added, “There are cameras on us all the time. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of this and make sure it’s in context?”
The devices cost from $300 to $700. Belmar said his department likely will use money seized from criminals to buy them.
“This is something that should have happened years ago, but didn’t because of funding restraints,” he said.
St. Louis County will be among the largest police forces in the country to deploy the technology to all its officers. The New York City police announced a pilot project last week. Ferguson police began using donated body cameras after Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown about a month ago.
Some departments have used cameras for years, and research shows they result in fewer citizen complaints and fewer use-of-force incidents, said Michael White, a criminologist at Arizona State University.
White wrote a report on body cameras for the Department of Justice in August 2013.
“There seems to be a civilizing effect,” White said. “We don’t know exactly what happens during encounters, but an officer wearing a camera changes people’s behavior and the officer is less likely to be rude and aggressive. My question is, whose behavior is changing? Is it the officer or the citizen changing?”
Said Gabe Crocker, president of the St. Louis County Police Association: “Not only will police officers be held accountable, but the public will be held accountable, too.”
THE POLICE PERSPECTIVE
For some county officers like Jim Monroe, who patrols Dellwood, this marks the second foray into recording technology. He remembers when the department equipped patrol cars with dashboard cameras. Those devices disappeared after maintenance proved too costly.
Most dashboard cameras are wired to come on with the warning lights. Body cameras run continually but keep only the previous half-minute of video until manually activated. So an officer who pushes the button records from that point plus the previous 30 seconds.
Belmar said he wants officers to record every time they respond to a call, but he realizes they might forget, or may not have time when something unexpected happens.
Sean Burbach admitted that some fellow officers seemed resistant before Tuesday’s training. He said learning about safeguards that prevent officers and supervisors from tampering with the stored video helped ease a lot of the reservations.
He also liked technology intended to capture what an officer sees and hears without enhancements such as night vision. “Instead of watching it and saying, ‘Why didn’t you see this or hear that,’ it will help show our perspective,” Burbach said.
Reflecting upon the sometimes controversial deployment of county police at riots that followed the Ferguson shooting, Burbach said, “If our officers had cameras during the Ferguson incident, it would have offered our perception of events as they occurred toward us.”
How and where the accumulated video is stored are factors police leaders must weigh, White noted. Some systems link to “cloud” storage, with data kept offsite for a monthly fee. Other systems use local storage, at significant cost for hardware and personnel.
“Agencies have been satisfied with the data storage solution, but there are always those who say, ‘It’s only a matter of time before some smart hacker finds a way around the system,’” White noted.
St. Louis County officers have been told not to use the cameras until the department finalizes its storage policy.
St. Louis city police have about 100 dashboard cameras and are considering using body cameras.