Police chief mulls use of body cameras

Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper says he’s exploring the possible use of body-worn cameras for police in Grand Junction, a little more than a year after the department opted to remove dashboard-mounted video cameras from patrol cars.

Camper is attending a day-long forum Wednesday in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the increasing use of the body-worn cameras and highlighting policies used by some police agencies as well as the technology’s effectiveness. The event is sponsored by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum. Vendors selling the equipment aren’t involved, he said.

“I’ve said all along we’d continue to evaluate the state of the industry, and not just from an equipment standpoint,” Camper said in an interview with The Daily Sentinel last week. “There are a lot of unanswered questions as far as limitations and how these cameras would be used in court.”

“We’re not going back to dash cameras,” he added.

Attached to officers’ clothing, helmets or sunglasses, body-worn cameras capture video and audio recordings from an officer’s point of view during traffic stops, arrests and, potentially, critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings. The implications are substantial for criminal investigations, supervision of officers and resolving citizen complaints.

The Delta Police Department purchased body-worn cameras in the spring of 2012, and they’re now required for all on-duty officers, police spokeswoman Jamie Head said. The systems, which are manually turned on and off, have generated positive feedback from the courts and prosecutors, she said.

“We’re going to continue to utilize them,” Head said.

Citing high costs of replacing aging cameras, limited reliability and limitations of the technology, Camper last summer ordered the removal of dash cameras from patrol cruisers in a move criticized by Mesa County defense attorneys. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department highlighted identical concerns in removing in-car cameras months later. While Sheriff Stan Hilkey said the move was mostly an economic decision, he also said the systems “generated unreasonable expectations.”

“We are finding that if video doesn’t precisely show what a deputy writes in his/her report or testifies to on the stand, the deputy is no longer considered credible,” Hilkey said a staff memo. “Such an assumption is offensive, and it completely ignores the limitations of video cameras with a fixed and very limited line of sight.”

Hilkey on Friday said he was open to the use of body cameras, but it’s not a priority.

“You still have some of the same concerns as far as equipment failure and when that occurs the assumption is you’re hiding something,” Hilkey said. “That’s hugely frustrating.”

The proliferation of video recording technology worked to law enforcement’s advantage in July.

Images captured by officers during the July 9 fatal standoff on Interstate 70 involving 36-year-old Shawn Payne factored in the investigation that followed. Grand Junction police last week released images purporting to show Payne lunging from the rear of a wrecked truck and pointing an apparent black handgun at SWAT officers. The investigation later showed the weapon was a pellet gun. SWAT teams from Mesa and Garfield counties were gathered for training in the Grand Valley that day. One of the trainers, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy Mark Schlegel, “had the presence of mind” to start filming the incident with his iPad, Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said.

Also at the scene, Grand Junction Police Cmdr. Andy Martinez used his cellphone to record events prior to, and during, the shooting.

While Hautzinger said videos and photos weren’t a deciding factor in clearing the six officers who fired shots, the evidence was “icing on the cake.”

“It confirmed what multiple eyewitnesses said was happening in the first place,” Hautzinger said.


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