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July 2015: South Mississippi chiefs embrace body cams as latest policing tool

Robin Fitzgerald

rfitzgerald@sunherald.com

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Biloxi police officers use the L3 Communications auto camera system which includes two cameras and a wireless microphone worn by the officer. The system sends the images to a server at the police department for storage.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Biloxi police officers use the L3 Communications auto camera system which includes two cameras and a wireless microphone worn by the officer. The system sends the images to a server at the police department for storage. SUN HERALD

Police chiefs across the coastal counties say they're considering the purchase of body-worn cameras for patrol officers or plan to upgrade the ones they have.

It's a growing trend nationwide, a practice the U.S. Justice Department recommends to improve transparency, document police performance and interaction with the public, and for investigating complaints, crimes and officer-involved incidents.

Most area police departments have body cams, but all the chiefs agree they have concerns about the costs of systems to meet their needs and the storage required for the data.

Six of 11 police departments across Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties have body cams for all their patrol officers. Ocean Springs and Waveland started using them six or seven years ago. Police in Biloxi, D'Iberville and Long Beach have been wearing them about three years.

Bay St. Louis police just purchased 25 body cams. Chief Mike DeNardo said his officers are "using them religiously."

Police chiefs in four other cities said they're considering them. Gulfport police officials have received approval to get proposals. Chiefs in Gautier, Moss Point and Pascagoula say they're researching options.

Some officers may not like wearing a body cam, but Biloxi Police Chief John Miller summed up a sentiment shared by neighboring chiefs:

"If you're doing what you should be doing, following the law, following policy and procedures, you don't have anything to worry about," Miller said.

As Waveland Chief Dave Allen put it, "Everyone tends to behave better when an officer is wearing a body cam and the public knows it."

Body cams are small, the size of a thumb drive or smaller. Some are designed to attach to the front of a shirt. Others attach to sunglasses. Costs vary, but the prices go up when police are looking for high-resolution recordings, durability and, most of all, data-storage options.

Gulfport could have body cams as early as this fall. All of the city's marked police cars have dash cams, but Chief Leonard Papania said he's been waiting on body cams because of developing technology.

"You want to buy the right product," Papania said. "The biggest consideration is how you're going to store all that data. We're at 10 terabytes already. We're overloaded.

"We have been researching what best suits us. We're talking about what could be a half-a-million-dollar investment over a five-year period."

For officer protection

Papania, like the region's other police chiefs, said his main reason for wanting them is officer protection.

Long Beach Chief Wayne McDowell gave an example in a complaint from a father whose teenage daughter claimed a police officer had stolen money from her purse during a traffic stop that resulted in a search.

McDowell said police showed the video from the officer's body cam, and the complaint was easily resolved.

"The officer did take money out of her purse, and he handed it to her, and she gave the money to one of her friends," McDowell said. "Had it not been for the video, it would have been the officer's word versus a juvenile's word."

The issue of police transparency has been making headlines several years, long before last year's officer-involved shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson police had no body cams. A manufacturer has since donated body cams for the officers.

More recently, two officers in Palestine, Texas, fatally shot a man who pulled a gun on them. The Palestine police chief released the officers' body-cam videos from the May 31 shooting. Video postings on YouTube clearly show how it happened. Officials later determined the man had an air-gun made to resemble a .45-caliber handgun.

There's at least one or two officer-involved shootings a year in South Mississippi. Would area police chiefs be willing to release body-cam videos of officer-involved shootings?

The Biloxi chief said it would depend on the circumstances and if he was ordered by a court to release it.

The Gulfport chief agreed that it's a legal question.

"In my personal opinion," Papania said, "officer-involved shootings are very unfortunate and have a long-lasting outcome on families and the police officers. To show it just for the sake of people wanting to look at it is disturbing to me."

Keeping officers in line

Miller said body-cam videos keep officers on their toes and are a valuable training tool.

"A lot of times, an officer sees things he didn't realize was going on," Miller said. "Documenting what happens shows whether actions were justified. Most of the time, they are. If they aren't, we consider what we can do about it."

Area police officials said their move toward body cams is unrelated to the Justice Department's offer of $20 million in body cameras through matching grants.

Some agencies have applied for the grants. Others did not because of the criteria or stipulations.

Gautier Chief Dante Elbin said his city didn't meet the criteria because it has a low crime rate.

A 2013 Justice Department study shows police in Rialto, Calif., reported a 60-percent decrease in use-of-force incidents and an 88-percent decrease in citizen complaints after using body cams for a year.

Statistics resulting from those who get the grants will be included in a future study.

Biggest concerns

Data storage is police officials' biggest concerns.

Police in Long Beach and Biloxi have been using body cams available to the general public, at a cost of $50 to $100 apiece. When one breaks, they replace it, but data storage is at their own risk.

Officials in those cities said they're looking at systems made especially for police, which are waterproof, more durable and offer alternatives to data storage. Some manufacturers use the iCloud to store evidence, but the storage isn't free.

Waveland uses a system that's made for police but provides no data-storage plan. Dave Allen said the volume of data has caused his computer to crash twice. He now uses a network with five hard drives, each with one terabyte of memory.

Waveland used $12,000 in drug forfeiture money to buy its body cams. Allen said he's had problems with the cameras and wonders if he can afford a better system.

Some systems manufactured for police require a five-year contract and increased prices for data storage. According to police officials, cameras and storage plans could cost more than $30,000 a year for 25 officers in Long Beach, $80,000 to $160,000 a year for 100 patrol officers in Gulfport, and about $150,000 a year for 80 officers in Biloxi.

Biloxi and Gulfport police have dash cams in all their marked cars. Dash cams turn on when blue lights go on; the cameras film what they face. Body cams go with the officer, showing what happens as the officer sees it.

Those who use body cams said they've already learned the need to categorize videos and determine which ones should be saved for a short period in case of a complaint or longer if needed for court.

Citizen support

Some South Mississippi residents said they support police use of body cams.

One is Valerie Levron Ladner, whose father and his friend were shot to death in 2006 when they returned to her father's Gulfport home and walked in on teenage burglars.

"There is too much disrespect toward police these days and officers need every tool they can get to perform their job and protect themselves and the public they serve," Ladner said.

Shannon Gjerde, also of Gulfport, agreed.

"It will protect our officers from allegations and it will also protect the person on the other end in the event of a police brutality issue," Gjerde said.

"It's time we stand for those who stand in the gap for us. If this will help, then I'm all for it."

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