WTVM Special Report: Caught on Body Camera

WTVM Special Report: Caught on Body Camera

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – Body cameras can capture every moment of every call law enforcement officials go on.

But how are they being used locally?

With national attention lately on claims of police brutality and racism, more police departments are investing in body cameras.

Muscogee County deputies and CSU security officers have worn them more than a year. It's a new tool for others in east Alabama.

After the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, President Obama asked Congress for $75 million to buy 50,000 body cameras.

In this special report, we go behind-the-scenes with Columbus police and share exclusive video of a few takedowns caught on body cam.

Muscogee County Sheriff's Deputies were on a routine court order to transport an alleged mental patient for evaluation on New Year's Eve. WTVM obtained the body camera video, shaky at times, showing how this led to a tazing.

"The deputy sheriff will activate that body camera anytime they're about to serve any kind of civil paper or warrant, pickup order," said Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr.

"With these personal cameras now, we can take that, no matter where we go, whether we're inside a building, we're chasing after a suspect," said Cpl. Gene House with Columbus Police.

House, a Columbus Police motorcycle officer, has had a body camera mounted to his uniform since Thanksgiving.

While protecting and serving with an extra set of eyes, he captures video of traffic stops, statements from suspects or witnesses, even us interviewing him.

"It doesn't matter what the officer's saying or what the citizen's saying, the camera and the video is going to tell us the true story of what happened," Darr said.

Darr says body cameras can help squash controversy surrounding police, but the gadgets still only offer a choppy view from the officer's vantage point.

"In an officer-involved shooting, he's in a situation, you get to see the officer's perspective of what is occurring," said Major J.D. Hawk with Columbus police.

Columbus police spent around $800 each on 25 body cameras, new tools that a California study reveals lead to police using force much less often and a big decline in complaints filed against officers.

"A lot of times, it does help the officer," Hawk said. "It's sort of like a backup to him."

Our WTVM photographer can move a camera around, get different angles, and zoom in, but on the body cameras that police officers wear it's fixed and they can only get video of what's in the line of sight or right in front of the police officer.

"There are shortcomings to cameras," Hawk said. "They're not going to solve everything."

The limitations of the body cams, according to the Force Science Institute, include a suspect or officer's body blocking the view.

A camera may see better in low light, compared to law enforcement reacting quickly in any lighting.

Also, one camera may not be enough, it only shows one perspective, and a body cam can never really replace a thorough investigation, but only used alongside other evidence.

What if a person calls to complain that an officer was rude? Now, in some scenarios, police could say this:

"Do you know you were being videoed...and the phone hangs up," Hawk said.

Police are required to keep the body camera footage for 5 years. It's downloaded only by supervisors.

"Somebody with an iPhone can delete that instantly; our cameras you won't be able to delete," Hawk said.

Muscogee County's sheriffs says body cams can motivate both sides to tell the truth, while some residents admit to feeling safer when officers wear one.

We asked House if he though this made a difference in terms of how the public views police.

"Believe it or not, we actually get more comments about how great it is for us to have them," House said.

It's protection for people if there's an overly aggressive officer and for police from unfounded complaints.

"If you're an officer or deputy sheriff or whatever, and you're doing the right thing, who cares if somebody looks at the video," Darr said.

Body camera video is already being used as evidence in cases, but it's still up in the air whether footage can be used from inside a person's home if they didn't know they were on video.

Join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #CaughtOnBodyCam.

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