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Craving cameras

Jessica Cuffman • Sep 23, 2013 at 2:00 PM

The dashcam doesn’t lie.

And police chiefs and criminal defense attorneys can agree on this much: The more of an alleged crime that’s recorded, the simpler it is to sort out conflicting accounts from an officer and an accused suspect.

About half the police agencies in the Register’s coverage area, meanwhile, don’t have video cameras, either in police cruisers or on the officers themselves.    

Of the 27 area agencies surveyed, 14 have cameras to document officers on the job  — cruiser cams in some or all of their vehicles, or body cameras worn by officers.

The No. 1 reason a police department or sheriff’s office might not have dashcams or body cams: Money.

See what departments are using body cams HERE

Most cruiser dashcam systems cost $4,000 to $6,000, but some can run up to $11,000, such as the systems installed in Clyde police cruisers, Clyde police Chief Bruce Gower said. In that case, the cameras were installed as part of a total system overhaul, allowing officers to access the department’s in-house records system and a state database.

Gower, like many other chiefs, has placed dashcams in his cruisers one by one. They are now installed in Clyde’s three main cruisers.

“As we get new cruisers, we’ll buy them for the new cruisers,” he said.

At Sandusky Police Department, the initial investment was $150,000 for servers that automatically download video footage from the cruisers’ dashcams, once the cars arrive at the police station, Sandusky police Chief John Orzech said.

It seems well worth the investment.

“It’s one of the best tools that we have out there,” Orzech said. “A lot of times, it will capture the crime scene or incidents as they’re happening, the conduct of people who are at the scene.”

Officers also wear microphones when they’re on the job, recording their conversations with people.

“It’s really beneficial to the officers,” Orzech said. “If someone makes an allegation, we can pull that video or audio up. Almost every time, it aids the officer.”

Erie County Sheriff Paul Sigsworth said dashcams are installed in the county’s cruisers one by one, when money is available. Dashcams are now in 11 of the 28 cruisers at the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.

“Overall, they greatly enhance our operation,” Sigsworth said. “We want to ensure our people are professional and respectful at all times. And what we find when we review these, that’s the case. This is just another way to ensure that.”

Criminal defense

Dashcam footage of an alleged crime scene, or even a traffic stop, can help the accused, too. It holds officers accountable for what is documented in their written reports.

“If they’re recording what they believe to be the illegal behavior, then it’s great,” said K. Ron Bailey, a Sandusky attorney. “Then you have the video with audio on it, that let’s you know exactly what occurred.”

Studies on eyewitness accounts show human recollections of what they saw or heard aren’t always accurate, Bailey said.

“Everyone has their own perspective of life and what was happening,” Bailey said. “Video shows what was happening and why.”

Local defense attorney Geoff Oglesby shares a similar opinion.

“They’re great if they use them,” he said. “(But) we’ve had cases where critical evidence was not obtained because the officer would put the person behind the camera. “If they’re on, it helps immensely,” he said.

Most cruiser dashcams can be activated manually, but they are set to start recording when an officer or deputy activates the cruiser’s lights or sirens when responding to a call.

“I think everything should be recorded,” Oglesby said. “That way, you don’t have a double standard.”

Oglesby said there are instances where he suspects officers deliberately avoid using the cameras, or they take a suspect out of the camera’s view. He likens it to avoiding certain conversations on the phone, as they may be recorded.

“But I’m not a public servant, for want of a better word,” he said.

Dashcams can hold criminals, and officers, responsible for their actions.

“It makes the police accountable for what they put in their reports,” said defense attorney Troy Wisehart, of Sandusky. “It has to be accurate. It protects everybody.”

Money, money

Leaders at local law enforcement agencies without dashcams say they simply don’t have the budget to upgrade outdated systems, or install all-new systems.

Berlin Heights and Norwalk police previously used VHS systems in their cruisers, but those systems are highly outdated. VHS recordings are difficult to use and maintain, particularly given the cost of VHS tapes and the trouble in finding a place to store and catalogue them.

But Vermilion Police Department still uses VHS.

That department’s chief, Chris Hartung, described them as troublesome at best, given their age and condition.

“Also, VHS tapes are becoming surprisingly expensive and difficult to locate,” Hartung said.

Still, a good video recording can stop a lawsuit or a court trial in its tracks, he said. Even with the outdated VHS system, Vermilion police officers still operate their cruiser cams daily.

Other departments don’t bother with any recording system.

“Right now, we’re just trying to play catchup with our aging cruisers,” Port Clinton police Chief Bob Hickman said. “Budgets are getting tighter and tighter.”

In Huron County, it’s the same.

“We couldn’t afford them, so it’s something we never really considered,” Huron County Chief Deputy Ted Patrick said.

The Huron County Sheriff’s Office had one dashcam that was donated and placed into a cruiser, but the cruiser crashed into a deer and the car became inoperable.

“It was kind of frivolous having it just in one car,” Patrick said.

Huron city police Chief Robert Lippert said he prioritizes his department’s budget otherwise, focusing on officer training and payroll.

“I’m not against dashcams,” Lippert said. “They’re definitely a valuable tool. It makes a good officer a better officer, and a great officer even greater.”

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