The police and people they arrest often give starkly different versions of their encounters, but Baton Rouge is about to join other cities in recording what takes place.
The city police department has received 100 body cameras that will be issued to every uniform patrol police officer in the 1st District, which covers the highest-crime area in the city, an area north of Florida Boulevard to Evangeline Street and Airline Highway to the north and east.
Ultimately, law enforcement leaders hope to outfit all of the department’s roughly 400 uniform patrol officers in the department with the surveillance equipment.
But because of unknown costs and legal questions, they are starting with a 10-month pilot program with the first batch of cameras to iron out the kinks. The cameras were rolled out Wednesday at a committee meeting of law enforcement and residents who will be subjecting camera policy to an ongoing review.
The clip-on cameras will be worn on the police officers’ torsos and are to be turned on every time an officer has an interaction with a member of the public.
The department has spent $105,000 for the equipment which includes 100 terabytes of server space to hold video footage and docking stations for each of the cameras, which will automatically upload recordings to servers at the end of each officer’s shift.
The cameras have a battery life for five hours of continuous recording. However, Lt. Steve Wilkinson, who is overseeing the program, said it’s unlikely officers will record for anywhere near that length of time on a daily basis.
The body cameras will supplement the police department’s dash-cam program which it’s had since 2007. The 400 police car cameras have produced about 1 million videos to date.
Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, who pushed the department to implement the body camera program, said she would prefer to see camera technology that automatically pulls the 30 seconds before the button is pushed to the recording. Such technology is used in Fresno, California, she said.
New Orleans Police Department spokesman Tyler Gamble said their body cameras have the same ability.
Marcelle said she wanted to see that feature because if an officer turns it on during an altercation, that 30 second window could contain important details.
The company providing the equipment, L-3, does not offer that feature. L-3 was selected in part because its technology integrates with the infrastructure city police has in place for its car camera program.
The body cameras also lack night vision.
But former police chief Jeff LeDuff, who sits on the committee, said camera technology that is aimed, in part, to hold officers accountable should match what can be seen by the human eye because the video feed will offer the most realistic portrait of what an officer sees.
There are still several unanswered questions about the cameras and how footage will be used and stored.
The biggest unknown is how much the program will ultimately cost. The pilot program is being covered, so far, with reserve funds from the Baton Rouge Police Department. But it’s unclear if more funds will be needed for additional server space.
The department also doesn’t know how many hours of footage they have capacity to store, although servers will automatically save footage onto disks to clear space.
What it does know is that scaling the program to the entire department will require more money than the department has. The department has been trying to identify federal grants to support the program but has so far been unsuccessful. It applied for a $300,000 grant in March but was passed over for the award.
Dabadie said he can’t get companies to give him a good estimate for what the program will cost in total, so the pilot program will be used to identify future costs.
The New Orleans Police Department uses TASER for its body camera program, and has budgeted a total of $2.7 million over five years for a total of 620 cameras plus software.
Another major concern for Baton Rouge leaders is privacy. Because officers will be recording interactions that occur in people’s homes, they could capture images of belongings, their children or bystanders who may be in various “stages of undress,” said police legal adviser Kim Brooks.
“If you enter a home and no one is arrested, then that video is a public record,” Brooks said.
Footage collected that relates to an open investigation isn’t a public record until the case is adjudicated. Brooks said that, per state law, they will retain all videos for at least three years.
Brooks and some of the other members of the committee said they’d like to see the state legislature tackle laws that could limit the public’s access to body camera footage.
In June, South Carolina passed a law directing all police to use body cameras. But the bill exempted all of the footage captured by those cameras from disclosure under that state’s open records laws. However, dash-cam footage in the state is still considered a public record.
Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana executive director, said efforts to limit the public’s access to the videos are a violation of the First Amendment.
“Body camera videos are a public record,” she said.
But, Esman added, there are questions about whether police should keep files of routine interactions with the public that don’t result in arrests. She said protocols should be established that would limit the length of time videos are retained by police when they aren’t related to open investigations.
Esman said she’s pleased to see more police departments adopt body cameras. She said they protect both the public and officers. But, she also said strict policies need to be implemented to ensure officers are appropriately turning them on.
Last year, a New Orleans police officer who shot a man in the head failed to turn her body camera on at the time of the altercation. The officer and the police department have since been sued by the victim, who was hospitalized by the incident, claiming he was shot at “without reason.” The suit is pending.
“There has to be training to make it almost like muscle memory, it has to be an automatic thing you to do turn it on every time you get out of the car,” she said. “There needs to be consequences if the officer doesn’t do that.”