St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain hasn’t been a fan of putting body cameras on deputies, seeing a reliance on technology as a step away from the time when a deputy who testified in court was believed on the strength of his or her reputation.
“I feel like we’re losing something,” Strain said.
But one week into field-testing five body cameras, the sheriff is warming up to the idea. After the first of the year, he plans to have 20 more cameras in the field, and by the end of 2015, the entire patrol division will be equipped with the devices.
Deputy William LaBiche, one of the officers participating in the test, said he has seen a huge difference in how people act once they know they are being recorded.
Their body language changes, they become more respectful and they address the deputy politely as they try to appear in the best possible light, he said. “It’s a better interaction,” he said.
As for Strain, he said he believes the cameras will give the public important insight into what officers do.
In an era where almost everyone has video capability at hand because of smartphones, Strain said, the public expects law enforcement to have that same technology. And with many witnesses often shooting video at crime scenes, it’s all the more important to have video taken from the officer’s perspective, he said.
The sheriff noted that President Barack Obama is encouraging police departments nationwide to use the cameras and has asked Congress for money to buy 50,000 of them, although Strain said 500,000 would be more in line with the need.
For St. Tammany, equipping all 135 patrol deputies will cost about $250,000, he said.
“I think you’re going to see a much different situation than what our detractors are expecting,” Strain said. “This video’s not going to show, in my estimation, corrupt deputies doing illegal acts. What it’s going to do is bolster deputies’ statements in court. You’re going to see more stern sentences being handed down by jurors.”
In the first week, video footage from a camera debunked a complaint from someone that a deputy had been arrogant and disrespectful, Strain said.
That’s in line with what has happened in Greensburg in St. Helena Parish, where all the officers have body cameras. Chief Tim Brown told The Advocate that citizen complaints there have dropped to zero.
“The good thing about video is it doesn’t lie,” he said.
But the cameras also have affected police behavior, with Greensburg officers reporting they use force less often than before they wore cameras.
The St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office is moving carefully in introducing the new technology. Strain has appointed a committee to develop policies for use of the cameras, something he said is necessary to protect officers as well as the public.
Camera footage has the potential to embarrass people, Strain said, pointing to domestic disturbances as an example. “Once we record this and put it on our servers, it becomes public record,” he said.
He’s also concerned about officers’ safety, he said. Deputies must make fast decisions, and turning on the camera is another step they will have to take in situations that can be dangerous.
The devices that St. Tammany is testing must be turned on manually. That’s been an issue with the New Orleans Police Department, which equipped all of its officers with body cameras in May. A monitoring firm issued a report in September saying that of 145 use-of-force incidents it reviewed, 49 had been recorded.
Strain said he wants to be sure that the policy his office adopts gives deputies as much discretion as possible. He doesn’t want to see deputies put in a difficult decision because they didn’t slide the switch down fast enough.
“It’s easy to sit here and second-guess,” he said.
While video is the latest innovation in law enforcement, it’s hardly the first, Strain said, noting that his office has moved from hand-writing reports to using computers as well as other changes.
“I’m sure at some point in time a sheriff questioned whether he should move from a horse to a vehicle,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.