The Hood River Police Department acquired a new weapon in its belt this year, but it’s not a stun gun, a pistol or a riot baton.
It’s a Taser — a Taser body camera that is.
Local law enforcement began a trial run with cameras earlier this year, which are manufactured by the same company that makes the Taser electroshock weapon many are familiar with. Slightly larger than a deck of cards and capable of recording both audio and video, the department uses these cameras for evidence collection, to cut down on complaints against officers, and to hold its own police force accountable.
“It’s kind of a new trend — the way departments are going right now — with liability on both sides, and after Ferguson,” HRPD Chief Neal Holste explained.
Holste is referring to the city of Ferguson, Mo., where protests erupted this summer following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown who was shot by city police. With no body camera recording the incident, accounts differ wildly about whether Brown, who was unarmed, was in the process of surrendering or charging a Ferguson police officer when he was killed.
Civil liberties groups have advocated for the use of body cameras as a way of holding police accountable, but Holste says the cameras can help if police are falsely accused after an arrest.
“I think it helps on both ends,” Holste said. “It can take a third party view of the situation.”
Holste made the decision earlier this year to purchase five Taser Axon body cameras for $299 a pop and will be soon purchasing another four, which will provide almost every full-time officer with a camera. The devices are approximately 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, are less than an inch thick, and weigh 3.5 ounces. They can record in HD quality, according to Holste, at 30 frames per second, and for up to 12 hours, with a 130-degree viewing angle.
Officers turn on the cameras at their discretion, but the devices are constantly buffering and are thus able to save 30 seconds of footage prior to the officer actually switching on the camera. After the stop, investigation, or arrest, officers can upload the footage into the department’s evidence cataloguing software and a copy of the footage can be burned to a CD by an evidence tech and forwarded to the district attorney’s office for review.
According to the Taser company website, the camera is unable to be disassembled and footage is “untouched by human hands from sensor to storage,” although the company does not fully explain on its website how that occurs.
Holste says the police department is only able to view the footage, not edit it.
“Once you download, you can’t change it whatsoever,” he said of the footage. “Once something is downloaded it stays downloaded.”
Holste said the cameras have proven their worth already in the courts for a number of crimes and noted DUII cases in particular. He added the department’s insurance carrier is pleased with the cameras, as it reduces costs associated with addressing complaints or potential lawsuits against the department from citizens who feel their rights have been violated during a contact with police.
Anecdotally, Holste said complaints against the department have noticeably declined since the introduction of the cameras, as officers make those whom they are pulling over or contacting aware of their use.
“When an officer comes up to people, they have to tell them they’re being recorded,” he explained. “I think you kind of solve the problem right at the beginning if there was going to be a false accusation.”
Hood River County Sheriff’s Office is not currently using body cameras, but Sheriff Matt English reported his agency also plans on employing the use of body cameras soon.
“We are in the research stage and had a vendor in recently,” he said. “We will be going that route in the near future.”