Police officials throughout Oakland have mixed feelings about body cameras for officers
By: John Turk
FILE – In this Jan. 15, 2014 file photo a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles. An agreement with Boston’s largest police union to have 100 officers wear body cameras was praised as a step toward greater accountability. But with the Sept. 1, 2016, rollout date for the pilot program approaching, not a single officer had volunteered to wear one. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard remembers a time as a patrol officer in which he responded to a very private police call.
“A woman had slipped getting out of the shower, and was stuck between a bathtub and the toilet, naked,” he said.
“Had I been wearing a body camera, that would’ve been immediately FOIA-able.”
Privacy for Oakland County residents is only one of the issues why the county’s sheriff believes that if officers wear body cams, there needs to be a policy in place.
While police shootings and other incidents across the country spark the discussion nationally and locally, law enforcement officials throughout Oakland feel very differently about whether their departments should employ cameras worn on every officer.
Bouchard, whose agency covers 13 communities and the majority of district courts and county parks in Oakland County, said there are many situations in which body cameras would victimize the public.
“We go to a lot of calls that are very personal, very sad, very private,” Bouchard said.
“And to have a camera introduced in those situations, where the footage of those cameras is FOIA-able, meaning anybody in the public can get to see it, is hugely intrusive.”
But some, such as attorney Neil Rockind, said the Freedom of Information Act already exempts material about a victim that is personal in nature.
“There is zero percent chance that a victim’s face or body would be disclosed under FOIA,” said Rockind.
The Bloomfield Hills based attorney said body camera usage is important, because “right now we’re left with police officers telling us what they did.
“But while we have some audio to hear what they say in certain situations, we don’t have video to show what they’re doing. That’s vital to policing the police – body cams and body mics will reveal all and give transparency where right now there is none.”
Congress last year approved $22.5 million for a body worn camera program where the federal government pays for up to half the cost of purchasing body cameras, and President Barack Obama has urged for increased funding of the program.
Bouchard said locally, if body camera legislation introduced in Michigan passes, he would implement a program on the condition that the program exempts all footage from FOIA requests except when there’s a complaint against a police officer.
“(A complaint) would trigger holding the footage, an investigation of the complaint and releasing the findings of the investigation and the footage,” said Bouchard.
“So it absolutely deals with the (police) accountability questions but also protects the privacy of the public that we so intimately in some situations serve on a daily basis.”
Body cams already in use
Many law enforcement organizations throughout the country, such as in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and even in Michigan, are testing body worn cameras out in various ways.
In Detroit, officers are wearing the cameras after City Council in May approved spending $5.2 million to equip officers there with body cameras, a move that was supported by the Detroit police chief and police officers’ union.
Other agencies in Michigan – including Roseville, Lansing, Flat Rock, Dearborn and Romulus – are also using the cameras.
In Hazel Park, petitions turned in to the City Clerk’s office seeking to require all police officers to wear body cameras were turned down in May on legal grounds. And like some community leaders, some police officials are still largely against body cameras.
Troy Police Capt. Robert Redmond said the Troy Police Department has concerns about the body worn cameras.
“We see some major problems going forward,” said Redmond.
“Privacy for citizens, funding, server storage, maintaining the footage and FOIA requests. Who’s going to be footing the bill for all of that?” Redmond said.
“We’re not prepared for them, nor can we afford to pay for them.”
Studies done by the Michigan State Police indicate that about 5,000 to 7,000 Terabytes of digital information would be captured after three years if all of its troopers used body cameras, and that it would cost about $6-8 million a month.
Many open to programs
Others, however, know that all law enforcement agencies across the country will soon have to consider adopting the use of body worn cameras.
Farmington Hills Police Chief Charles Nebus said while his department doesn’t use body cameras, police administrators are open to employing a program.
“We have experimented with body cameras and are currently thinking about what a written policy would look like,” Nebus said.
“We are hoping for new legislation that would clearly answer and protect the privacy rights of our residents.”
West Bloomfield Police Chief Michael Patton said he would be in favor of a program and understands that privacy is an issue.
“But frankly, we’ll also be looking at adopting body cams to protect officers against false claims,” said Patton.
“Most agencies that use (body cameras) produce positive effects, but there is a cost issue, a storage issue and hours of video that needs to be maintained and catalogued.
“Right now in West Bloomfield, with all the moving parts in the state (legislature), the bill may be treading water right now. But it’s certainly in the discussion.”
Patton said he and other police chiefs and officials in Oakland County have discussed informally the potential for a consortium to test and share body cameras.