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August 22, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Columbia police wearing body cameras in entertainment districts

Columbia police have equipped handful of officers with body-worn cameras in a pilot program

Columbia police are testing body-worn cameras as an attempt to win more public support and to show the embattled department is both transparent and is using innovative policing methods.

Chief Skip Holbrook said Friday that eight officers on foot patrols in the city’s entertainment districts wore small cameras for the first time Thursday night. Four more cameras have been purchased and were to be provided Friday night to other officers who also walk Five Points, the Vista and the Main Street districts.

“I’m real excited about it,” Holbrook told The State newspaper. “I would hope that this is an indication of us being forward thinking and transparent.”

The cameras supplement dashcams in police cars and the many fixed cameras in public spaces in those entertainment districts and along the city’s major thoroughfares.

Body-worn cameras have been debated for a while, including during legal fights over the New York City Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program.

More recently, activists have asked whether the devices would have helped ease public tensions over the fatal shooting by a Ferguson, Mo., officer of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Civil liberties organizations have raised privacy concerns.

The clip-on cameras – the first of their kind on Columbia’s police force – will help officers and the public when questions arise about police conduct or judgment, Holbrook said.

“It levels the playing field and it shows that we’re being proactive and accountable,” he said. And “it would reduce the agency’s liability.” Sometimes, the chief said, images captured by citizens on their mobile phones do not fully depict an incident.

Cameras will help settle complaints against officers faster as well as serve to close cases more quickly because they provide video and audio evidence while officers are on assignment, Holbrook said.

Holbrook also envisions using body camera images to train officers on proper and improper ways of dealing with incidents they encounter on city streets.

“This will be a better police department for it,” he said of deploying the small cameras.

The $982 cameras from Coban Technologies of Houston are designed to record a 68-degree field of vision and the data can be coordinated with police dash cameras to provide fuller accounts of what officers encounter, said David Hinojosa, the company’s spokesman.

The camera is inside a clip-on case that measure 3 inches tall, 2 inches wide and less than an inch thick. Typically, officers wear them in the center of their chests, Hinojosa said.

“There is no zoom on any body camera out there,” the company spokesman said of the surveillance camera industry. “It’s best feature is simplicity of use. You turn them on and turn them off.”

Columbia police Maj. Rick Hines, who oversees the use of the devices and other police technology, described the cameras this way: “It’s kind of like a security camera with different angles.”

Like the cameras posted around the city, the body cameras will not be monitored in real time, Hines said. In the case of the body cameras, the technology currently does not allow it. The images are downloaded onto DVD discs.

Dash camera images from 65 Columbia cruisers can be coordinated with the body camera data because they were purchased from the same company, Hines said. The police department began buying $5,000 dash cameras from Coban starting in 2012.

However, the two sets of images cannot be intertwined to provide single, seamless, sequential images, he said.

The Coban dash cameras have the capability of being adapted to live monitoring, Hines said. Acquiring the hardware necessary for that is being discussed by the department’s leadership. A formal request is well into the future.

Coban dash cameras are “an extensive upgrade” from the 110 the department bought from another company before converting to the new firm, Hines said.

Holbrook said he hopes to buy more than the dozen body cameras on hand now. He is considering dipping into the department’s budget or forfeited-property income or asking for money from the city’s general fund to come up with more money.

“I’m wanting to aggressively expand this program as we can afford it,” he said.

In the meantime, Columbia police administrators are working on updating written policies to cover the use of the new, small cameras.

Victoria Middleton of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday her office has been asked by the Charleston Police Department to review policy guidelines for body cameras.

“There are caveats,” Middleton said of proper use of the devices. “They are not going to be a panacea.

“You have to have oversight” within the police force and externally. “You want to have civilian authority,” such as city council, she said.

One of the reactions to the Missouri shooting that ignited violent demonstrations is that a petition calling for a law that would require state, local and county police to wear cameras has received more than 123,000 signatures.

Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin last summer ordered the New York City Police Department to test body-worn video to help a court-appointed monitor sort through conflicting claims about the stop-and-frisk law she struck down.

A study by the Rialto, Calif., police department found that complaints against officers dropped by 88 percent compared to the year before the department began using the cameras in 2012. Use of force by police dropped almost 60 percent, according to the department’s study.

Holbrook sees more positives than negatives.

“It all comes down to promoting public confidence and maximizing technology,” the chief said.

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