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What’s avoiding a wrongful death lawsuit worth to your department?

Having the right body-worn system can ensure that exculpatory footage will be there when you need it most

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Instead of facing charges in an OIS, thanks to bodycam footage, the officer at the center of the incident was given the Officer of the Year award for saving the lives of his fellow officers.

image/Porter County Sheriff’s Office

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No law enforcement agency wants to be involved in an officer-involved shooting, but unfortunately, such incidents happen hundreds of times each year. Not only is there physical injury or death to the victim, there are emotional and psychological wounds to the families, communities and, importantly, the officer and department involved. If the agency cannot explain or give reasons for the officer’s use of force, there can also be a significant and long-lasting breach of trust between the law enforcement agency and the public.

One key witness to a use-of-force incident is the officer’s body-worn camera. With high-quality video available, command staff can review the incident and make an accurate report of what transpired to state and city officials, police review boards, prosecutors and the press. Without it, a cloud of suspicion and the threat of a lawsuit can linger over the department and officer for years.

There are a lot of reasons that Captain Phil Miller of the Porter County Sheriff’s Office in Indiana is glad that his department chose BodyWorn by Utility as the provider of their body and in-vehicle camera system. Shortly after implementing BodyWorn technology across the entire department, one suicide-by-cop incident illustrates just how important the investment became.

The video told the story

Four months after implementing BodyWorn cameras across the department, PCSO officers were dispatched to a 911 call where a suicidal man was reported to have barricaded himself in the house and slashed both of his wrists. He was clearly going to die, says Miller, so the officers decided to enter the house to try to restrain him and get medical care for him.

The man resisted, so the officers used a conducted electrical weapon (CEW) to subdue him, but the man, undeterred, charged at two of the three officers with a box cutter. The third officer fired his duty weapon three times to neutralize the threat, turning the incident into a lethal-force encounter.

“All of our shootings go to the Indiana State Police for review,” said Miller. “The first thing we told them is, ‘Look, we have this BodyWorn footage.’ They took all of our body camera footage from the three different officers, and there’s really not much to investigate when you have that.”

A short time later, the officer’s actions were deemed to be justified by both the Indiana State Police and the prosecuting attorney’s office.

“There were no charges, and it was done and over with,” said Miller.

Choosing the right camera system

When Miller started looking into acquiring a body-worn camera and in-car video system for his agency, he did a lot of research and did demos of at least 10 systems and came up with a list of features he didn’t want.

“I’m a career patrolman, so my biggest priority was not to burden my guys with a bunch of extra work,” said Miller. “So, ease of use and just an overall user-friendly system was my main priority.”

The BodyWorn technology solved a lot of the problems that Miller had seen with other body-worn and in-vehicle camera systems. Here are the features that put the BodyWorn technology at the top of his list:

1. Remote access and automatic offload

Most of the other systems Miller looked at required the police officer to come to the station to download video after their shift. In a county jurisdiction, that can be a challenge because they’re remote and often 20 to 30 miles away from the station.

Instead of having to go to a station, footage from the officers’ BodyWorn camera and RocketIoT in-vehicle cameras is automatically offloaded to CJIS-compliant cloud storage, where it is instantly available for review via AVaiLWEB evidence management software. The cloud storage also avoids the need to purchase additional servers.

2. Secure camera position

Some of the other camera systems Miller was evaluating experienced poor video quality due, in part, to how the camera was mounted.

“The camera would dangle from the officer’s shirt a lot, and you got an image that was bouncing all over the place,” said Miller. “A lot of times it was hard to see.”

BodyWorn’s mount system provides a much more precise image, he says. Unlike externally mounted cameras, the BodyWorn camera is mounted inside the officer’s uniform or vest, slipping into a zippered holster between the uniform and the officer’s body armor so that the only visible part of the camera is a grommet with the lens in it.

Not only does the secure mounting ensure greater image stability, it makes the body camera more discreet and, more importantly, makes it unlikely that the body camera could fall off or be ripped off during an altercation.

3. Accurate image recording

Another image-quality factor that Miller wanted to address – in this case, avoid – in the camera was night vision. While it might seem practical to have the camera record in low light, in practice, night vision-assisted footage can be a liability by showing a clearer, more enhanced image than what the officer actually sees.

“If there’s some serious altercation, people are going to judge the officer a little more harshly, saying, ‘Why didn’t you see this?’ when, in fact, what the officer saw was darkness,” said Miller. “That was huge for us. We wanted the reviewing party to see exactly what the police officer was seeing in experience.”

4. No lost footage

PCSO’s BodyWorn camera system also includes the RocketIoT in-car video communications platform, a wireless access point that provides a reliable internet connection, as well as automatic wireless video offload.

Because footage from the body camera and the in-vehicle camera are automatically offloaded, even if an officer were to be assaulted and the suspect were to find his body camera and take it, all of that data would still be saved in the Rocket unit in the car, says Miller.

Having the RocketIoT as the in-vehicle hub for video and communications means that no video will be lost, even if the BodyWorn camera itself goes missing.

5. Officer safety feature

A main feature that sold Miller on the BodyWorn camera system is the Officer-Down function that comes standard.

If an officer goes prone in the field and does not respond within a defined amount of time, the BodyWorn camera starts recording and sends an alert to command staff and dispatch with the exact GPS coordinates of the officer’s location. The system can also be configured to automatically send alerts to other units in proximity to the incident scene for a quick response and increased situational awareness.

A relief for Porter County Sheriff’s Office

The suicide-by-cop incident could have been worse for PCSO if they did not have video from the officers involved.

Having all three officers outfitted with the BodyWorn body cameras, along with the AVaiLWEB platform, made it possible for the PCSO to easily and immediately sync footage from each officer’s BodyWorn camera. AVaiLWEB also made it easy to automatically redact the incident footage from hours of more routine footage and make it instantly available for review by those who needed to see it.

Instead of being subjected to a lawsuit, disciplinary action or worse after the review, the officer involved was commended for saving the lives of his fellow officers.

Equally important to Miller, however, is how having reliable BodyWorn footage makes a difference in daily interactions.

“Officers nowadays are falsely accused of some pretty silly things, and the first thing all of them say is, ‘Hey Captain, that’s not how it went down. I don’t even need to talk to you, here’s my BodyWorn footage right here,’” said Miller. “Once I review the BodyWorn footage, it’s so refreshing to see that our officers are professional and that the incident didn’t happen the way that the citizen said it happened. Almost 100% of the time it ends up vindicating the officer.”