Police chief: St. Louis County officers to get body cameras by April

CLAYTON — By April, St. Louis County Police officers will be equipped with body cameras and every marked county police car will have cameras mounted inside, Chief Jon Belmar said Wednesday. 

Belmar’s announcement comes just two days before the five-year anniversary of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death, the police shooting in Ferguson that thrust Belmar and other leaders into a national debate about police use-of-force.

Activists who believed the shooting was unjustified called for body cameras. Federal grants were made available to equip officers with them. And police leaders also voiced their support for the technology.

But body cameras won’t result in a decline in police misconduct without greater oversight and accountability measures, said the Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, who served as co-chairman of the Ferguson Commission. 

“In the past five years, we had the unfortunate reality that many of us had to relive and see the story of people being shot and killed on police cameras and seeing officers walk without accountability even though we have seen this footage on body cameras,” Wilson said. “There’s not much faith we can put in body cameras that showed up five years too late for Michael Brown Jr. and we don’t know whether they will be here five years from now.” 

Belmar called the timing of his announcement happenstance; the County Council, he noted, approved in July the $5 million purchase. He said he expects 700 of the department’s roughly 950 officers to have cameras, plus all 350 marked police cars.

The money comes from Proposition P, a tax hike approved by county voters in April 2017.

The council approved the contract with Georgia-based Utility Associates Inc. late last year, but money had not been set aside. Under the terms of the five-year contract, Utility will replace the units after 2½ years. All data will be stored in a web-based data center instead of on a department server.

The contract also includes in-car cameras — making it nearly the first time county police cars will have the technology. For about five years during the 2000s, cars in the First Precinct and Wildwood Precinct had them because of a federal grant, but the grant was discontinued and the cameras became obsolete. 

County police officers began piloting different models of body cameras not long after the Ferguson shooting, mounting them to safety glasses, their collars and clipped to their chests.

But the cameras county officers will soon wear are more inconspicuous than most of those models. A camera lens that’s about the size of a quarter is mounted in between the buttons on the chests of their brown uniform shirts. The camera itself is an Android smart phone that officers secure into a bracket buttoned into a specially sewn pocket inside their shirts. Officers can activate the cameras by tapping them or by pushing buttons on a watch that wirelessly controls the cameras.

The county spent about $200,000 to modify the uniform shirts to hold the cameras in place. 

Officer Robert Varwig said he preferred the model the department selected among the several tested.

“It’s impossible for me to knock it off, and so it’s great for officer mobility,” he said.

The cameras activate automatically when gunshots are detected, when officers begin running or when they draw their guns — sensors on their holsters track their movements. The cameras can also turn on when officers enter specific geographical areas, a technique called “geofencing,” where dispatchers can draw digital boundaries around specific county neighborhoods that trigger the cameras.

A 13-page policy spells out when the cameras are to be used. It requires officers to activate their cameras during “enforcement actions,” which include, but are not limited to, traffic stops, pursuits, police dog activity, domestic violence calls as well as prisoner transports, and the inventorying of seized property.

If officers do not activate their cameras during those situations, the policy sets forth a disciplinary process.

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If residents ask officers to turn off their cameras, officers are instructed to tell them that the department forbids them from doing so.

The document also specifies times when officers should not record, which include attorney/client conversations, activities in schools, conversations with undercover officers or confidential informants, discussions about tactical or investigative matters as well as interactions with medical personnel at hospitals and psychiatric facilities, unless a patient is “adversarial.”

Officers are not to record in locations where people have “reasonable expectation of personal privacy,” such as a restroom.

The policy forbids supervisors from reviewing recordings for the sole purpose of finding misconduct without an already specified allegation. 

Officers who are involved in shootings have the option of viewing the footage before making any statements to investigators. 

The policy also establishes levels of retention.

Some footage — of critical incidents, uses of force, or any circumstance where a civil lawsuit has been filed or is anticipated — is to be retained indefinitely.

Felony offenses, misdemeanor or ordinance violations including traffic citations, arrests or prisoner conveyance are to be stored for seven years.

All other records are to be retained for 30 days. 

When it comes to releasing footage to the public, the county’s policy states that the police chief can redact portions to “protect the identity of the department employees” by concealing the officer’s image and voice.

The St. Louis County Police Association supports the advent of the cameras to their members’ cars and uniforms, said business manager Matt Crecelius.

“It’s been proven that they overwhelmingly show that officers are doing their jobs appropriately and effectively, and the specific cameras we have also have some officer safety features built in and that’s another big plus,” he said.

If officers are in the prone position for 15 seconds, the cameras alert dispatchers that the officer may be in danger. 

Crecelius said the protests that followed the Ferguson shooting put the need for body cameras into the “limelight.” Some police unions make equipping officers with body cameras part of their collective bargaining agreements. 

“But the camera doesn’t show the whole picture,” he said. “It’s one very small angle and not what the officer sees, perceives, feels, hears; it’s a very restrictive view so we can’t jump to conclusions based on what a camera shows.”

Source: St. Louis Post Dispatch

About 700 St. Louis County police officers will be wearing body cameras by the end of the first quarter in 2020. Photo by Christine Byers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch