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B-N Police Find Upside To Body Cameras As Rollout Continues

Ken Bays
Eric Stock
Bloomington Assistant Police Chief Ken Bays displays a new body camera that all officers on the force will soon be wearing.

When Ken Bays started as a patrolman at the Bloomington Police Department 21 years ago, he remembers jotting down all of his reports by pen on carbon paper.

“When I first started it was handwritten police reports, and I’m not the best script (writer) either,” Bays recalled. “When you made a mistake you had to start over.”

Technology has improved light years for police agencies over the last few decades. Reports are done digitally now, while the emergence of video cameras provides an entire new level of recording, which has its plusses and minuses.

"It places an independent witness at every contact."

Bloomington Police Department will soon become the latest police force to equip all of its officers with body cameras. BPD joins Normal and many police departments across the country who will be recording video of just about every interaction its officers have with the public.

Bloomington Police started exploring body cameras two years ago under then-chief Brendan Heffner on the heels of President Barack Obama’s task force report on 21st century policing. Among other things, it called for police departments to increase transparency.

Bays is now BPD’s assistant chief. He was tasked with implementing the department’s newest technology.

“It places an independent witness at every contact,” Bays declared.

Bloomington recently contracted with Axon, the nation’s leading maker of police body cameras, to buy 100 body cams for officers and front and rear cameras for 37 of its squad cars. The department tested Axon and other body cameras systems for five months before entering into a five-year deal, costing the city $753,000.

Bays said these cameras, no more than 9 square inches in size, have quickly become an invaluable tool for gathering evidence and sometimes, gathering witnesses.

“Let’s say you are going into a crowded bar and there’s a fight. It’s not uncommon for people to be pouring out as officers are going in,” Bays said. “This captures all those faces and sometimes we know those faces because we’ve dealt with those faces.

“So we are able to identify people that we wouldn’t have necessarily have otherwise identified if something significant had occurred.”

Bloomington P.D. sought advice from Normal’s police force which got a head start on the emerging technology.

It’s neighbors to the north purchased body cameras for its force in the fall after a two-year pilot project.

Chief Rick Bleichner admitted not all of officers were on board from the beginning.

“Two things that police hate are when things stay the same and when things change,” Bleichner quipped. “I anticipated that (hesitation). I try to look at things from the standpoint of efficiency and effectiveness and then how is this going to increase officer safety.

“In five to 10 years from now (body cameras) will be standard.”

Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Normal Police officer Aaron Rowe (left) and Sgt. Josh Wilson said body cameras have been a useful tool for police.

When Normal P.D. started testing body cameras, patrolman Aaron Rowe, a six-year member of the force, wanted to be an early adopter.

“I was very adamant about trying to be one of the first six (to test the cameras). I just wasn’t chosen,” Rowe recalled. “When they came, I was absolutely OK with it.”

“I don’t think anybody is really shocked that we are wearing them these days,” Rowe said.

Officers are required to declare when the cameras have been activated as long as it’s reasonable and safe for them to do so.

Sgt. Josh Wilson has been on the police force in Normal for 14 years. He recalls multiple incidents where cameras have captured compelling video that shows suspects resisting arrest.

“We described what the suspect was doing which led to our actions and response,” Wilson said. “Sometimes we are able to catch those with the body cameras, so they can clearly see the suspect swing their arms toward us or turning away from us in an attempt to run.”

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said his department has explored body cameras, but said he doesn’t have room in the budget now. He said he’s noticed many smaller police departments, including Chenoa, LeRoy and McLean, have purchased the cameras.

Sandage said he’s also waiting to see how use of the cameras play out in Bloomington and Normal.

Storage Issues

Having a recording of every public interaction can be a valuable tool for police, but it can quickly become a data behemoth, devouring government storage space with cameras rolling dozens of times a day.

Bays demonstrated how an officer’s body camera will activate even if they forget to turn it on during an incident. The cameras are integrated with their tasers and can be integrated with the police car’s emergency sirens to turn on when either is activated.

The city’s contract with Axon comes with unlimited cloud storage. So, Bays said storage isn’t an issue and the time it takes officers to download and upload videos was far less than he expected.

Bays noted it used to take an officer 30 minutes to upload a video. He does the math, based on the department’s average of 82,000 calls for service in a year. Only one in 10 of those typically leads to a written report, but 80 percent of those will have some digital evidence. That amounts to more than 6,500 cases a year producing some digital evidence that will be downloaded and stored.

“I watched an officer file five different videos from five different cases in 30 seconds,” Bays said. “The savings is about 4,000 hours a year, so nearly two full-time 40-hour weeks in savings where the officers are already here, it’s just what they are doing.”

Bays said videos that aren’t flagged to be kept as part of an ongoing investigation or criminal case are automatically deleted after 90 days. Otherwise they are saved for three years or longer if needed.

Bays noted another benefit: The department can submit videos to the McLean County state’s attorney’s office with the click of a button. The prosecutor’s office has its own Axon system, so no longer the need to burn off DVDs and deliver them to the Law and Justice Center.

Don Knapp
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp says he's concerned the police videos will tax the county's storage capabilities.

State’s Attorney Don Knapp said the technology provides an added level of convenience but he noted, each police department in the county uses its own technology and his office must be adept at collecting and distributing a mountain of evidence.

“We are very worried about storage,” Knapp said. “Our IT department has been wonderful, the administrative offices have been wonderful.

“It comes at a cost.”

He said the state’s attorney’s office has to share all of its evidence with the defense, which requires flexible technology.

“In an imperfect world, we’ll have 30 or 40 different systems out there that don’t talk to each other and don’t work with each other and in a perfect world we’d only have one, but we are going to have more than one,” Knapp said. “I think a good word for it is cumbersome, not impossible.”

Knapp said at some point, the state’s attorney’s office will need additional digital storage.

Craig Nelson, director of McLean County’s Information Technologies, said the county spent $25,000 on additional data storage in 2017 in part to handle the additional data from all county departments and to replace what he calls “aging and outdated infrastructure that was holding our data up to that point.”

McLean County spent $35,000 on data storage in 2018. He said the county expects to have enough data storage capabilities to last at least five years.

The county’s IT department holds records, including video, audio and GIS data for more than 25 departments and its more than 800 employees.

“As you can imagine, over the years the county has accumulated a lot of data,” Nelson said in an email.

Normal’s contract for police body cameras was considerably cheaper than Bloomington. It cost the town about $109,000 for the 76 cameras from Panasonic. Normal has a smaller police force, so it needs fewer cameras, but it also decided to use the town’s existing data storage for the videos.

John Cherry, Normal’s network administrator, said the town has saved about 25 terabytes of data from police videos going back to 2010 when police first installed dashboard cameras on their squad cars. The data is saved at a NetApp storage system at Uptown Station.

He said the town has enough storage capability for now, but will need to buy approximately $100,000 worth of additional storage in about a year as police generate about 1,600 videos each week.

He said the town paid $70,000 for 60 terabytes of data and moved other data off the server to create more room for police videos.

“Data storage from all facets of IT is growing at a pretty tremendous rate,” Cherry said. “As of right now we have enough spare storage in our existing storage system to accommodate the ramp up of the body cameras.

Cherry said the added storage would likely last a number of years.

Aside from the storage concerns, Knapp said body cameras have been a positive.

“I can’t count the number of police-citizen interactions that body cameras have deferred otherwise bad interpretations of those interactions,” Knapp said.

“I can think of numerous cases where I have been in the room discussing what happened in interviews or at the scene of a crime or shortly after a crime was committed,  showing people what was on the body cameras has changed their entire interpretation of the incident.”

In Normal, Bleichner said the cameras can be a time saver, often eliminating the need for follow ups with victims and witnesses.

“We would then have to take the victim and it was serious enough we would bring them back to the station to interview them, bring them in front of a squad car to do it,” Bleichner said. “Now with the body camera, we notify them we are audio and video recording and we catch that emotion of them.

“So when they are talking with us and they are telling us what happened and we are asking them questions, that’s the interview right there.”

Building Trust

While the new technology requires an additional layer of protocols for police, law enforcement and prosecutors say they are a net positive for the additional accountability they provide.

Bloomington assistant chief Ken Bays said he welcomes the additional scrutiny the cameras might bring.

"It's not going to take a situation in a community where you don't have trust between the community and police and make them trust you."

“I think it’s going provide a great opportunity to show our officers doing exactly what they were trained to do,” Bays said.

Bleichner said he believes the department has a good reputation in the community and this, he said, further fosters that sense of trust.

“Not everybody loves me or what I do but that would be an unrealistic expectation,” Bleichner said. “When I look at how we deliver services, we have to do so as fair and equitably as possible within the law and within policy and as long as that’s our benchmark and we do that and part of it is being open to answering questions from people.”

Bleichner said these videos can be subject to Freedom of Information requests, but only from those parties involved in the video, unless an incident is flagged because there was a shooting, an arrest or a higher level of force from police. In those cases, they can be FOIA’d by anyone, including the media.

Bleichner said the cameras alone don’t build trust, they merely reflect what trust already exists.

“There’s nothing magical about them though,” Bleichner said. “It’s not going to take a situation in a community where you don’t have trust between the community and police and make them trust you.”

Knapp said he hasn’t noticed that the cameras have changed anyone’s behavior, either police or the public. That's consistent with a major national study which was completed in 2015.

Knapp, however, believes the police’s reputation was never in doubt.

“I am a cop's kid and I think officers have always been pretty well behaved to being with,” Knapp said. “The vast majority of police-citizen interactions, it’s been my experience before or after body cameras that police act appropriately in a vast majority of them anyway and that has not changed.”

Knapp said he expects the state will eventually mandate all police departments use body cameras. As they become more commonplace, the county’s top prosecutor worries these videos could create a "CSI" effect, referring to the popular TV franchise, where jurors will become conditioned to expect video evidence in every case to earn a conviction.

That, he said, remains to be seen.

Bloomington expects to have all of its officers equipped with body cameras by mid-February.

You can also listen to the full story:

GLT's story about police body cameras.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.