TO SERVE AND PROTECT

eymour Police Department officers have been using body cameras for four years.

The flip-phone-size devices are clipped on the front center of the uniform and are a way for police to collect evidence and to hold officers more accountable for their actions.

All 40 Seymour officers wear one while on duty,

but the cameras are not on and recording during an entire shift.

Police Chief Bill Abbott said the technology has been a good investment on the part of the city, but it isn’t the answer to every situation.

“It’s been a learning process for us, and there was some resistance at first from officers. But now, they understand their use,” he said. “They’re as much to protect the officer as the public.”

The cameras also prove valuable in the courtroom in helping put criminals behind bars, he added.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a solid conviction,” Abbott said.

More police departments across the state and country are looking into and in some cases testing body cameras in response to public outcry after a police officer shot and killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in August and an incident in New York in which a black man died after a police officer put him in a choke hold. Neither officer was indicted in those cases.

Abbott said it’s unlikely a body camera would have helped in the Ferguson situation.

“Had the officer had a body camera, he would not have had time to turn it on,” Abbott said. “When a situation escalates and becomes deadly that fast, you aren’t going to be thinking about turning on a camera. I’m not going to risk someone’s safety or my own just to push a record button. So it’s not going to work 100 percent of the time.”

He said keeping the cameras running at all times isn’t practical either.

“It’s unrealistic,” Abbott said. “There is a need for defining what is and isn’t important as evidence.”

Police departments in Bartholomew and Johnson counties are weighing the option of purchasing body cameras and are testing different styles of equipment.

The Seymour Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department are ahead of the curve, though. The sheriff’s department also has been using body cameras for about four years, Lt. Andy Wayman said.

All 16 full-time officers and 15 reserve officers are issued a body camera while on duty, and even jail officers and court security officers use the devices.

The Brownstown Police Department has been using body cameras for two years and is investing in a different style to be worn above the shoulders — either on the collar, above the ear or clipped on glasses.

Wayman is a firm believer the cameras are a positive addition to any law enforcement’s arsenal of crime-fighting tools.

“They are a big benefit to the job,” he said. “If used right, there shouldn’t be any drawbacks.”

Except, perhaps cost.

Seymour paid more than $20,000 in initial costs, including a server for video storage space, memory cards for the cameras and the cameras themselves, which cost $124 apiece.

“There are a lot of associated costs with them besides the initial costs of the equipment,” Abbott said. “We’ve upgraded everything to have enough storage space.”

But even with the cost, he said he views the cameras as a good investment.

“Look at the thousands of dollars paid out every year by police departments for unfounded claims,” he said. “Use of these cameras can help decrease that.”

Wayman said videos from body cameras are a way to put the prosecutor, judge and jury at the scene of a crime.

“The camera doesn’t lie,” he said.

Being able to review video footage later during an investigation also can help officers see things they didn’t see while at the scene, Wayman added.

Besides video, the body cameras can be used to take still photos.

“Our officers love having them,” Wayman said.

After four years of working out the bugs with the cameras, Abbott said the department is ready to start putting together written policies on how the cameras are to be used.

“Policies are very hit-and-miss right now because not a lot of departments are using them,” Abbott said.

Body cameras have not replaced cameras installed in police vehicles yet, either, and most likely won’t anytime soon, he added.

Body cameras, however, offer advantages over dash cameras, including a closer point of view and audio.

“We use them in conjunction with in-car cameras,” Abbott said. “But a body camera goes where the officer goes and sees almost what the officer sees.”

The quality of the video is good enough to hold up in court and has helped in several convictions, including one in a burglary case where an officer pulled up and recorded the suspects carrying items out of a home in Seymour.

The camera isn’t always going to be a true point of view, though, Abbott said.

“You have to consider the position of the camera in relation to the incident, and there is always some distortion with video,” he said.

Sometimes there can be radio interference with video feed, too.

“Technology isn’t always going to work,” Abbott said.

And it can be lost or broken, he added.

“We have lost a couple of them during pursuits,” he said.

With their current cameras, officers must turn them on and then push the record button. But Abbott just ordered a one-touch camera to try that allows officers to touch the camera just once to turn it on and record.

Officers have to use judgment when deciding when a situation warrants turning on the cameras.

“If I’m unlocking a car for someone, I’m probably not going to use it,” Wayman said. “But if I’m responding to a domestic situation, I’m going to hit the button.”

Pull Quote

“It’s been a learning process for us, and there was some resistance at first from officers. But now, they understand their use. They’re as much to protect the officer as the public.”

Seymour Police Chief Bill Abbott, on officers wearing body cameras

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.