August 28, 2014 10:45:12 AM
The Columbus Police Department has ordered 50 video cameras that patrol officers will begin wearing this fall.
Chief Tony Carleton told The Dispatch his department is paying for the cameras with a $14,045 federal grant. The department will begin using the cameras in early October, according to Capt. Fred Shelton, who leads the patrol division.
"With the new Axon cameras, that's going to give us a total view of actually what's happening," Shelton said, "and give us a more realistic view of what's going on."
There have been calls for police departments across the country to begin implementing the use of cameras since an 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot to death by a police officer on Aug. 9. The officer involved in the shooting was not equipped with a camera.
The Columbus Police Department, however, was working on getting cameras for its officers prior to the incident.
Rebecca Curry, director of advocacy for the Mississippi ACLU, said cameras are needed to help prevent police abuse and, at the same time, protect law enforcement against unwarranted civilian complaints.
"The cameras just have clear potential to be a win-win," she told The Dispatch.
Shelton has been a police officer in Columbus for 30 years. Years ago, before officers were issued pepper spray or tasers, Shelton was apprehending a man with a warrant out for his arrest at a Church's Chicken. The man resisted. Given the limited non-deadly force options at the time, Shelton said he and the man fought for about three or four minutes until backup arrived and an arrest was made.
"So, what happens is, the people there at the Church's Chicken, which was full, came forward with complaints that I used excessive force on him -- that I literally beat him up," Shelton said. "No. I was using the minimum amount of force necessary to bring about the arrest."
In a trial, however, the man was found not guilty of resisting the arrest.
"Had I had some video documentation or some audio documentation when I was telling him to stop resisting -- 'Put your hands behind your back' -- that would help clear up my case," Shelton said.
Curry, who supports the use of cameras, agrees.
"It's often just word against word," she said. "In Ferguson right now is a clear example."
CPD is using the Edward Burns Memorial Justice Assistance Grant to purchase Axon cameras, which are made by TASER, an Arizona company that produces law enforcement technology. The cameras -- which Shelton said will be mounted on CPD officers' sunglasses -- are designed to record interactions from the officers point-of-view. At the end of each shift, the footage will upload to Evidence.com and the department can access it if needed.
TASER PR Director Sydney Seigmeth told The Dispatch that CPD is one of 12 law enforcement departments in Mississippi that have purchased Axon cameras. More than 1,200 departments nationwide have ordered the cameras.
Approximately 80 percent of the camera sales have come in the past 12 months, according to Seigmeth.
The cameras, apparently, work. A yearlong study conducted in Rialto, California, showed that using cameras reduced civilian complaints 87.5 percent and use of force by 59 percent in the town of 100,000.
Shelton said CPD receives about 100 civilian complaints every year.
The cameras will increase the department's ability to assess the validity of complaints with visual evidence, but the department already has documentation of all interactions with the public.
Since 2010, the department policy has been to document all public interactions with an audio recorder. Anytime a CPD officer is talking with a member of the public, they are ordered to be recording. Shift supervisors collect the recordings and conduct audits to ensure the technology is being used. (Officers who do not record all their interactions become subject to disciplinary action.) Shelton said the audio recordings have helped the department when it receives civilian complaints.
Shelton said he likes to use the technology as a teaching tool for his officers, to ensure they treat all citizens with courtesy and respect, which will ultimately reduce civilian complaints and increase trust between the public and the police.
"As a police officer, what it does is it helps me keep myself in check," Shelton said. "For me, it's like a pat on the shoulder saying, 'Hey make sure you're doing the right thing and saying the right thing.'"
Carleton, in an emailed statement to The Dispatch, described the new video cameras as the future of law enforcement.
"Body cameras will allow the officer to keep great records of any incident," the chief said. "The cameras will protect officers and provide courts with live documentation of suspect's action. Citizens as well as officers may not see the importance of this technology. But, it will reveal itself in the future. This technology is here and we all need to embrace it. As another tool we can improve quality to the citizens of Columbus, we are making sure we are giving the citizens the best product we can."