WILLIAMS, Ariz. - The Williams City Council authorized the purchase of body cameras for the Williams Police Department at their July 23 meeting after Williams Police Chief Herman Nixon requested the purchase of 14 body cameras for the entire Williams police force.
Police departments across the country have chosen to outfit officers with body cameras after scrutiny has increased over police tactics.
"I guarantee that these are going to be mandated sooner or later," Nixon said. "The bottom line is we're just trying to beat it to the punch. This way we can set our own policy."
On-officer recording systems (also called "body cams" or "cop cams") are small, pager-sized cameras that clip on to an officer's uniform or are worn as a headset. The cameras record audio and video of the officer's interactions with the public.
The Flagstaff Police Department began outfitting their officers with body cameras in June of 2014. The department initially purchased 50 body cameras for their patrol officers. Last week the department purchased an additional 34 body cameras for all their officers including uniformed supervisors and specialty assignment officers, such as the SWAT team.
In November of 2014, researchers from the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology (IoC) published the first full scientific study of policing with body cameras in Rialto, California.
The experiment showed that capturing evidence was just one aspect of body cameras. The cameras also helped prevent escalation during police-public interactions. The study also found that wearing cameras reduced use-of-force incidents by police and abusive behavior by the public towards police.
The researchers say that when the public and officers know they are being recorded, they tend to have a heightened self-awareness during the interactions. Having the cameras thus became a preventative treatment to unacceptable behavior.
During the 12-month Rialto experiment, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent and reports against officers dropped by 87 percent against the previous year's figures.
Williams PD currently has two vehicle cameras that record footage directly in front of a vehicle. The department plans to continue using the car cameras and add the body cameras, which will have the capability to record at 180 degree angles and follow the officer's line of sight.
Nixon has researched several companies and found that Watch Guard has the equipment that best fits their needs. The department budgeted $17,000 but will spend closer to $14,000 for the cameras, accessories and online storage for the video.
"We knew this was coming," Nixon said. "I went to the President's Council in Phoenix and saw the direction things were going."
Nixon believes the cameras will be a good thing and said he wants the public to trust that Williams PD is being as transparent as possible.
He said the body cameras are a layer of protection for both the citizen and the officer. Body cameras not only protect the officer from false complaints but protect the community from officers that may abuse their authority.
"We get citizen complaints sometimes," Nixon said. "Our car cameras have stopped many of those complaints because we can show what really happened. But we also have had incidents where an officer screwed up, we got it on camera and that officer got disciplined for it."
Nixon said the department is going to work on developing policy for the body cams over the next few months. Nixon has been studying policies from several different agencies.
"We're going to look at them and determine what's going to work for our department," Nixon said. "The fortunate thing about Williams is that we don't have the contacts like we've seen the bad publicity on. We don't have the action and crimes and things that are going on throughout the country, so we're pretty lucky."
Nixon said the officers will have the body cameras operating continuously during their shifts. They are able to turn the audio off (which conserves the battery), but the video will always record.
When a shift is complete, the officer will place the camera in a charging bank where the video data will automatically download into a secure evidence system. The officers will have no opportunity to edit or tamper with the video.
"I think it's going to be very good," Nixon said. "We're always very transparent with our community...but it's another layer for them. We have a pretty good trust between our community and our law enforcement here."
Williams PD is planning to make it a policy to try to inform people when they are being recorded. Officers will introduce themselves, explain the reason for the contact and then advise the person that they are being recorded by audio and video.
"We're going to try to let people know right away," Nixon said. "But if we go to a bar fight and there's ten guys fighting, which we do quite often, we're not going to be able to do that. But when the time is there...we're going to do it so everyone knows."
As of now Williams PD plans to keep the video footage indefinitely. He said there is no mandate on how long they need to store it.
"We'll probably just follow the state guidelines to determine how long," Nixon said. "At this point they're pretty much forever. They're stored on a little device that we keep in the evidence room."
Nixon said that although the cameras will be continuously recording, strict guidelines will be in place for access to the footage. He said that prior to the release of any footage, software will block out the face of any juveniles. He also said that video will be released to individuals under certain circumstances.
"We'll have a policy where only I can authorize the release of a video," Nixon said. "But again we've never wanted to hide anything. If you try to hide things, people don't trust you and you've got to have that trust."