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I've been in law enforcement for almost 25 years now. I was working as a young deputy when the Rodney King incident unfolded and video of the police action was smattered across every TV in the world. No matter where you stand on the issue, one thing on which everyone can agree is that law enforcement was never the same.
Prior to the incident, if I said how something happened, then that’s how it happened. Afterwards, that was not the case and the protection I felt that I needed moved beyond the physical. Here is my story about my long-time relationship with body worn devices, which are, in my opinion, as necessary as your weapons, vest and radio.
My first purchase, out of my own money, was a micro-cassette recorder, which I carried with me religiously and used virtually every time I had contact with anyone. This was first of many devices I would carry on my person and the initial technology was limiting, for the micro-cassette recorder, in order to keep a recording you had to preserve a small tape cassette.
I moved to digital recorders as soon as they became available. The benefits were a much smaller unit (with smaller buttons, bad) and that I could quickly download recordings that were needed into a computer file and they could be easily saved. Those recordings that looked like they were going to be needed were easily placed onto a CD and placed into evidence.
By the time that digital recorders had come of age, defense attorneys were quite aware that I was carrying the device and recording everything. Undoubtedly, this was a trend that they had seen many times before with other officers of a like mind.
A hard lesson… when audio isn’t enough
“The attorney called me a liar blatantly and openly in court and basically set the case up for a jury to not believe an audio recording of the situation if it were presented... It taught me however that audio would not be enough.”
One night after ending my patrol shift, I was on my way home still in uniform in my take-home marked patrol unit. I came across a vehicle that was parked off the side of the road up against a road marker. I stopped behind the vehicle without turning my lights on to make consensual contact to see if everything was okay. I fat fingered my small digital recorder buttons and the recording feature failed to turn on.
Upon exiting my unit, I could hear yelling and cussing and I could see hands flying in the front seat of the car. The passenger exited the vehicle and was obviously so intoxicated that he could hardly stand on his own and he had to hold on to the vehicle as he came back to me to maintain his vertical appearance. The subject came and stood between the car and my unit and began talking to me although he was not providing any information about who was in the car or what was occurring in the car.
Shortly into the conversation, the driver of the car put the car into reverse and started backing up, pushing this individual towards the bumper of my patrol unit. I warned him to get out of the way but due to his intoxication he didn't realize what I was telling him or that the car was pushing him into my unit. I ended up stepping between the vehicles and giving the subject a hard shove, which knocked him down to the ground away from the path of moving vehicle and then jumped out between the cars myself.
The car stopped before making contact with my unit and then drove off. The car was eventually stopped and the driver was under the influence and was arrested. The case went to court and the defense attorney who definitely understood that I record every contact that I make, came up with a carefully crafted argument that would not have been contradicted with an audio recording.
Essentially, he was saying that I know that deputy Klassen is saying that my client and her boyfriend were doing this, but what you can't SEE is that my client and her boyfriend were actually doing this and that Deputy Klassen is a liar. The attorney called me a liar blatantly and openly in court and basically set the case up for a jury to not believe an audio recording of the situation if it were presented. Justice prevailed and the DUI arrest stood. It taught me however that audio would not be enough.
Testing and evaluation is definitely worth the time and effort
I began researching body worn video cameras. This was about the same time that TASER International began releasing information about their up-and-coming Axon system. I basically obtained a test and evaluation unit of every type of body worn video recording system that I could find. I was able to obtain cameras that were hidden in the extended mic of the radio.
I found another system that was approximately the size of a pager and could be worn in multiple different locations on the body except for the head. I found one “Point of View” unit that had a slightly larger DVR component with a cord that extended to a large “stogie” sized camera head that could be attached to a ball cap or helmet. I began testing these units in the field on duty, off duty and at an active shooter training.
Center body mass worn systems
Here's what I discovered during that test and evaluation period. I quickly learned that with the lapel, belt or center body mass worn systems or the systems that were worn on your shoulder as with the radio mic, the camera did not accurately capture events. I had to change my officer safety practices and stand square on to whoever I was talking with as opposed to bladed with my gun side away. I didn't like that, but I practiced it for a time while wearing these cameras.
The next thing that I learned was when I was dealing with a hostile citizen even if it had not gone to the point of weapons or hands on, I automatically bladed and the hand actions and body language of the citizen that I was contacting was universally missed. What I learned was that if the citizen became aggressive to the point where I would've had to have taken some sort of force option that the actions of the citizen would not have been recorded for me to use in the court trial or my own defense when the individual filed a complaint against me.
The other thing that was painfully obvious in the active shooter training was that as soon as a weapon came out, the best that I had was a picture of me holding and/or firing the weapon. Even if we go back to the old style FBI position, (isosceles shooting method), chances are, unless you are wearing the non-point of view body worn video device low enough on your body, the actions of the subject you are shooting at are going to most likely be covered by you holding the weapon.
The bottom line was that in a shooting situation, all I had with a non- point of view system was a good video of me pulling the trigger and virtually nothing of what the target (suspect) was doing to cause me to pull the trigger. In a heated citizen contact all I had was an expensive audio recording of what the subject was saying and nothing of what the subject was doing. In a cordial and polite citizen contact all I had was a video of a cordial and polite citizen.
Point of view systems
At the same time that I was testing the lapel and belt worn systems, I was also testing the point of view video system. Now I will readily admit that the system was right there on the obnoxious side of things with this SyFy laser looking camera mounted to the side of my head, but in actuality I found that the system worked very well. It was much larger than the TASER Axon point of view system which I was not able to get my hands onto but it appeared to work in much the same way.
It was obvious that the point of view method of carrying body worn video was the only way to go. During the active shooter training whenever my weapon came out you had a view of where my weapon was pointed at and exactly what the target was doing to cause such a communication method to be used.
Wherever I looked, the camera pointed and took video. This worked really well when a suspect pulled a knife out of his waist band on me. Fortunately he is still leaving a carbon footprint and I have video to prove I am not “trigger happy”.
The proof is in the pudding…
In the field, while I was testing the point of view system I got a call that really showed the value of video and of a point of view system in particular. I was dispatched to a call of a missing dog. Sounds really serious, doesn't it? The kind of thing you could lose your career over, right? This neighbor had been having ongoing problems with another neighbor who was constantly threatening to shoot their dog, even in the dog owners’ yard. I contacted the suspect neighbor with the video rolling. The suspect denied that there were any dead dogs on his property and gave me consent to search the property if he could walk with me.
We began walking around the property, the owner chatting with me along the way, and I asked him to show me where his property boundaries were as they were unmarked on approximately a 1 acre lot. As we were completing our survey of the boundaries, I observed the missing dog laying dead on the ground just outside the property boundaries. The suspect no longer really cared to talk with me but was happy to allow me to continue my investigation even on his property.
As we walked back down to his residence he looked at me and asked “What's that thing on your head?” I explained to him that it was an audio/video recorder and that I was audio and video recording everything that had occurred. Here in California, we are not required to advise anybody that they're being recorded. As a citizen, if you are in the presence of law enforcement, you are to assume that you are being recorded in some manner. The subject told me that he liked the fact that I was recording everything because there were too many liars in this world. Those words would later come back to haunt this man.
The investigation led to a search warrant, which was served at the suspect's residence. The suspect lost most of his weapons and a case was submitted to the District Attorney's Office for review. The subject never was called into court over the case and decided that he was going to take some vengeance on me. The suspect applied for, and was granted, a grand jury position.
The suspect, I believe with the help of a certain attorney who knew that I audio recorded contacts but did not know that I was video recording contacts, filed a felony criminal complaint that I had perjured myself in the search warrant affidavit. The complaint against me was crafted in such a way that an audio recording would've been useless for defense. How the suspect turned grand juror could not have known that I was audio/video recording the investigation against him is beyond me.
The complaint was basically that I lied about where I found things and where I was standing when I found things, what I saw and the ground conditions at the time. For my defense, I essentially needed two pieces of evidence. I was able to go back on a weather service and pull up a weather report for the day that included the times that it had begun raining in the area and a DVD copy of the video of my investigation. During the investigation, I had narrated everything that I was looking at and explained what I was seeing; drag marks, shoe prints, the direction that grass was bent over, wounds on the animal and the dry conditions of the soil underneath where the animal had been located which established an approximate time of the incident.
The video shows exactly where we walked, where I had been and most importantly EXACTLY what I saw. After reviewing the evidence in my defense, the case was dropped against me and the suspect was removed from the grand jury. I feared that had I only had an audio recording or no recording at all, I might have won the case but there would've always been a question in people's minds as to whether I was truthful and honest or not.
After this incident I was able to reiterate to my Sheriff the importance of point of view body worn video and how it could protect officers and the department. The idea was good, but the money situation was bad and cameras were not purchased. Given my experiences, I went out and laid my own cash down and bought a $700 point of view system. The Sheriff allowed me to wear the camera and eventually found some money and reimbursed me for the expense of the camera.
Since purchasing that unit, I have worn it every day on patrol. I was eventually transferred to a plainclothes assignment and the camera with its obvious “Robo Cop” look was not suitable. I then discovered a Bluetooth styled audio/video recorder that could be worn on the ear like many other Bluetooth devices but included audio/video recording capability.
This style of camera is certainly not as obnoxious looking as the other “Robo Cop” looking unit that I use. I was able to test this Bluetooth unit and found it to be as effective as the other point of view system worn on the side of my cap. This Bluetooth styled unit is very easy to download and save on another digital device or media. Since testing the system and finding it functional and effective, the unit is being presented to my Sheriff for consideration. Money is still an issue. Until the money for purchasing this type of unit through the department becomes available, I have no problem using my own resources to obtain the unit to protect myself and make my cases stronger.
The bottom line is that for far less money than body armor, individual officers and departments can protect themselves from high dollar liability and career ending accusation “bullets”. Is it any less important to protect your well being and your career from an assassin’s accusations? How many cell phones have video today? Why not have video from your or my point of view. Discreet point of view video looks where you look, sees what you see, is light enough and compact enough to be practical and in my opinion, in this day and age, is as necessary as your weapons, vest and radio.