When it comes to police work, armchair quarterbacking from the public is common.
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said his officers are “constantly challenged” by members of the public who disagree with the officer’s actions or professional conduct.
In those cases, Hargadine simply says: Let’s go to the video.
“We can go back to the video and sit down,” Hargadine said. “This is what happened, is this how you remembered it? Oftentimes, it’s not.”
In years past, the only police-produced video that officers could rely on as evidence in a case or to settle a complaint with a citizen came from the in-car dash cameras mounted inside officers’ squad cars.
But now, the Iowa City Police Department has joined the ranks of departments across the country that are outfitting their officers with body-mounted cameras.
Earlier this year, the Iowa City Police Department used funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant to purchase 11 body cameras for officers.
Now, other Eastern Iowa police departments say they have outfitted their officers with body cameras or are researching the technology.
All of Iowa City’s squad cars are equipped with dash cameras, which are activated whenever an officer activates their emergency lights or reach a certain speed. Though a valuable tool, Hargadine said the inherent weakness of in-car cameras are their limited range.
“You can only get so far from the car before the audio fades out,” he said.
That means in-car recording is not a viable option for officers assigned to foot or bike patrol. Hargadine said the 11 on-body cameras will be used by officers who will routinely be away from a squad car.
One such officer is David Schwindt, a community resource officer dedicated to the downtown district. Schwindt patrols the Pedestrian Mall and downtown area exclusively on foot and bike and has frequent interactions with the public.
Schwindt’s role involves more community policing than writing citations and making arrests, but he said the camera is a useful tool, albeit with a slight learning curve.
“The learning curve is more when you go talk to somebody, that muscle memory of remembering to turn it on and turn it off,” he said. “I’m still not 100 percent used to it. There are still times when I forget to turn it on.”
Benefits of cameras
Hargadine said the cameras are used for more than just settling complaints. He said the courts have indicated that they won’t always simply take an officer’s word for it when there isn’t a recording to back them up.
“Interrogations have to be recorded,” he said. “It’s just a sign of the times, we’re not going backward in time.”
Earlier this year, the Mount Vernon Police Department equipped their six full time officers — including Chief Mark Winder — with body cameras.
“There are a lot of situations when you’re away from the patrol car where things happen,” Winder said. “It’s just kind of nice to have that video. People you are dealing with tell a different story. This is another way to document issues.”
The spread of body cameras in Eastern Iowa can be traced back to the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety. UI Crime Prevention Officer Alton Poole started researching body cameras in 2006, and the department began purchasing the equipment in July 2011. As of last year, roughly 34 sworn officers and 16 security officers were outfitted with cameras.
UI’s cameras were about $900 a piece. Iowa City’s cameras were just under $1,000 each.
It was money well-spent, Poole said.
“It was well worth the investment when you look at the benefits,” he said. “The benefit would be the man hours saved in conducting investigations when we receive complaints from the general public.”
The university doesn’t keep the number of complaints it receives from the public, but Poole said he believes they’ve remained consistent. However, Poole said he can’t think of a single complaint that’s been founded since the officers started wearing the cameras.
Cost a concern
Waterloo Police Capt. Tim Pillack said they’ve been experimenting with on-body cameras for at least a year and Coralville Police Chief Barry Bedford said his department is looking into the technology, as well.
One issue, however, is cost.
“They’re just expensive,” Bedford said. “They’re about a thousand dollars apiece, at least the ones we’ve looked at … If we clipped every officer with one, that’d be $23,000 for patrol people.”
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner and Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said that though they’ve had discussions about body cameras, neither department is close to acquiring the technology. Gardner said the jail and patrol cars are sufficiently covered with cameras.
“It comes to the point of where is enough, enough and how much do you think is adequate,” Gardner said.
Jerman said he doesn’t want to explore body cameras until every squad car is equipped with a dash camera. About 80 percent of the department’s fleet has an in-car camera, Jerman said.
“I like body cameras,” he said. “Right now, I want to get the mobile video completely implemented.”