Lawrence police to answer key questions about body camera use before rollout

A Newark police officer wears a body camera during a news conference unveiling the cameras, Wednesday, April 26, 2017, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Discussions are underway about the Lawrence police department’s upcoming rollout of body cameras.

A critical part of the discussion will be which type of camera will be purchased. There are models that police officers must manually activate and models that automatically record under certain conditions, such as loud noises, activation of a patrol car’s emergency lights or when officers draw their handgun or Taser.

Lawrence’s new police chief, Gregory Burns Jr., said that he’s a big proponent of body cameras. Burns came to Lawrence earlier this month from the Louisville Metro Police Department, which has been using body cameras for more than two years.

Burns said his former department utilizes manual cameras, which have some limitations. There were some situations, he said, when the cameras weren’t turned on when they should have been. Initially, the Louisville Police Department policy was for officers to activate their cameras when making contact with someone, but was later changed to whenever a call was dispatched.

“Obviously, officers are human, sometimes they forget to press a button, sometimes it’s a high-stress situation,” Burns said. “And we had a couple of incidents where things that should have been captured on camera were not captured on camera.”

The city of Lawrence budgeted about $465,000 next year to purchase the cameras for all the police department’s officers, and recently learned it would be awarded a $231,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help offset that cost. The city estimates the Lawrence Police Department’s body camera program will be in place by the end of 2018.

When asked how the police department’s use of body cameras should be governed, Mayor Leslie Soden said it depends largely on whether the cameras are manually or automatically activated. She said it’s important to have a public discussion about which type of camera to buy, as well as policies for their use.

“It’s a good conversation for us to have and I’m really glad that it’s something that we’re working towards,” Soden said. “I think it’s an important part of 21st-century policing.”

Police Captain Trent McKinley said in an email that the department will begin meeting with vendors to discuss the various camera options later this year or early 2018. McKinley said the department will have officers field test cameras, including some with the ability to automatically record.

“As we gain a better understanding of the technology and features available, including cameras activated automatically by some of the conditions referenced, we will be able to make a more informed purchase decision,” McKinley said.

He said the department is working on a policy for the use of the body cameras, and that the plan is to consult closely with Burns as the policy develops. As the department meets with different camera vendors to better understand the functionality of cameras, McKinley said, it will be able to “further build out that policy.”

Though there are some mechanical limitations of cameras, Burns noted there are more and more camera options these days. He said he thinks cameras are beneficial overall and will become an integral part of policing.

“Obviously, it’s my belief that before it’s all said and done, cameras are going to be just like you carry your handcuffs in policing,” Burns said. “I think everybody will eventually have a body camera. I think they’re very valuable. To me, they’re an impartial witness. You have something on, and what you see is what you get.”

Regarding the body camera use policy, Soden said she doesn’t see review of camera footage being limited to incidents when officers use force. She said she also sees cameras as a way to provide ongoing officer training.

“When we have the body cameras, we want to be proactive about their use,” Soden said. “It’s not just about video taping interactions to provide a good database, background to a case, but it’s also for the officers’ benefits.”

In addition to the funding for the cameras themselves, the city’s 2018 budget includes $66,000 for a technical support position that would begin midyear. The Douglas County budget also includes about $325,000 for new staffing and equipment in the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office to review video from the body cameras.

The body camera purchase decision will require City Commission approval, and McKinley said he anticipates the body camera policy will also go to the commission for review.