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Lawrence P.D. deploys body cameras, ‘game changer’ on the streets

LAWRENCE, Ind. -  Lawrence Police Chief Dave Hofmann calls the deployment of a body camera system among his 44 sworn police officers “a game changer."

He expects to see them become standard equipment not only throughout central Indiana, but across American law enforcement in the next five years.

“This is, in my opinion, the highest most amazing technology that’s available on the market,” he said.

Since its limited roll out late last summer, every officer is assigned an integrated three-camera system which includes not only a body camera, but also two units in each marked patrol car, one pointing forward out the front windshield and the other trained on the back seat.

“There’s a backseat camera so if we ever have to transport prisoners in our car there’s a record of what’s going on,” said Hofmann. “It totally eliminates any false accusations of excessive force, inappropriate touching, any kind of rudeness or even maybe there have been accusations that officers have planted evidence on people who are in custody.”

In many instances the cameras can be self-activated or manually operated.

“You just have to remember to turn your camera on when dealing with people,” said Patrolman Devin Randle, one of the first in LPD to wear the device.

”Things could escalate in a blink of an eye but you don’t have to do anything. You flip your lights on, the camera and everything comes on and you just roll. You start running and the camera flips on by itself. If you’re lying down prone, if you’ve been hurt or anything and can’t respond, it flips itself on and sends out the GPS," he said.

That GPS tracker not only pinpoints an officer’s location for dispatchers, it can also track a high speed pursuit when radio operators are forced to be the eyes and ears of officers responding to the route of the chase.

“This is a freshly stolen car from IMPD’s jurisdiction,” said Hofmann as he reviewed the video of a recent chase by one of his officers on a desk top in his office.  “He drove over by 465 and Pendleton Pike and a very alert Lawrence police officer spotted him and on this map a little red dot shows exactly where this officer is at.”

Hofmann said the wrong way pursuit on I-70 to Post Road into IMPD’s jurisdiction resulted in an arrest.

The chief also reviewed car and body camera video of an officer who yanked a suicidal man from atop a 56th St. bridge late one night in February.

The high definition camera not only captured clear video of the event but witness statements for the next hour as the man was referred for hospitalization.

When multiple officers and car cameras are all recording, the resulting video provides a virtual 360 degree account of an event.

“It tells everybody we’re on the up and up here. We’re not only videotaping our own activities but we’re recording you as well,” said the chief, a former IMPD commander on Southwest District who watched as Metro PD spent years vetting various body worn camera systems.  “The existence of this camera has actually calmed people down. It's de-escalated situations. It has reduced the likelihood that officers have to use force on somebody  in their own self-defense  or defense of somebody else.”

The advent of body camera systems has accompanied development of state law and practices to govern their use and retention and release of videos.

Consequential videos must be retained for at least 190 days, more if a criminal or civil court case is ongoing, and guidelines have been established for their exclusion from open records act requests or redaction of confidential non-essential information.

Hofmann said data storage and ownership problems that have bedeviled other systems have been solved by his department’s five-year lease agreement with a Georgia software company.

“We wanted a product that was web based,” he said.  “In our case it's all cloud storage. It's instantly uploaded at no extra charge, unlimited cloud storage. That’s a big thing at other agencies. They had to bail on their body worn camera projects because the cost of storage was prohibitive.”

Hofmann said if an officer breaks a camera in a fight or jumps into water to save a drowning person, it's up to the camera to replace the leased device.

“We just send the broken equipment back to Atlanta and they send us new devices,” he said. “We don’t own anything other than the data. Everything we upload to the cloud storage the city of Lawrence owns and really to a certain extent the public owns.”

Such data ownership issues have plagued other types of Marion County criminal justice and law enforcement contracts with private providers who charge government agencies and taxpayers for access to their own information.

“Annually we pay $60,000 for all of this equipment and technology and, if you do the math and if you think about I, that works out to about six dollars a shift per officer to have this technology,” said Hofmann. “Think about one lawsuit. One wrongful death. One excessive force. You name it. Those start at $200,000 and go up to $300,000 really quickly. So we’ve got these on board for five years for $300,000."

Officer Randle is a third generation policeman who said his father and grandfather agree with the deployment.

“We have a to deal with a lot of technology, a lot of tools on our belt, but it's just one more tool that we have to use that’s effective and will help us get the job done safely and without any questions asked about how we use this tactic or that,” he said before heading out on patrol one morning. “To me it makes the job a lot more simple. You can see clearly right on camera what is going on.”

At just a few dozen officers protecting 46,000 residents, Lawrence PD’s body camera deployment makes the type of operational and economic sense that might be harder to replicate in Indianapolis where more than 700 officers would need to be outfitted to patrol a metro area of more than 800,000 people, often in more violent and dynamic environments.

In 2015, IMPD plans had an estimated cost in excess of $2 million to outfit 900 officers for three-to-five years, but part of that budget was dependent on federal grants that were not awarded.

That same year, an eastside officer wearing a body camera as part of a pilot program shot to death a convicted felon named Mack Long.

A grand jury cleared the officer as the video clearly showed Long struggling for the patrolman’s gun.

The Columbus, Ohio, Police Department has equipped 1400 officers with body cameras for $9 million over the course of five years.