WHITEWATER — Cameras are everywhere: in banks, in schools and even on some stoplights.
In Whitewater, cameras are now being worn on police officers' heads.
Whitewater Police Department officers wear head-mounted cameras and record all contact with residents.
“A lot of the video that you see out there is only capturing parts of what's happening,” Capt. Brian Uhl said. “This camera system will capture everything the officer sees from their point of view, the entire incident.”
The department chose Axon Flex cameras from the company Taser because they record everything officers see as they turn their heads. Other cameras worn on the chest are easily blocked, he said.
Uhl said the cameras make the collection of evidence more efficient. For example, officers can record interviews with people at incident scenes, eliminating the need to interview them again at the police department. The cameras also could be used to record crime scenes.
The recordings make unambiguous evidence, he said, and the police department is working with the Walworth County District Attorney's Office to track the effectiveness of the cameras in court.
Cameras also protect officers from false complaints, he said. People have tried filing complaints against officers but changed their minds after learning the incidents were recorded, he said.
Steven Riffel, President of Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, said he expects most Wisconsin police departments soon will adopt some type of body camera. Because body cameras still are new, many departments are waiting for technological kinks to be worked out and prices to drop.
Riffel also is police chief and director of public safety at the Sheboygan Falls Police Department. His department recently updated squad car cameras because department officials recognize the value of recordings for police and residents.
“It reduces lawsuits and allows officers to realize everything is being recorded,” Riffel said.
The Whitewater Police Department has had the cameras since May 1, and Uhl said the department has heard no privacy complaints.
“I think communities and citizens now are expecting that there is video around them, so I think the stigma of being recorded is rapidly going away,” Riffel said.
Officers wear the cameras on headbands or attach them to baseball caps or sunglasses. Officers are responsible for turning on the cameras whenever they come in contact with people. Uhl said the department's policy is to have the cameras running during the entirety of interactions.
At the end of their shifts, officers download the videos to a general file. If they feel nothing of value happened during a recording, they leave it in the general file, where the video is automatically deleted after 120 days.
If something of consequence happens during a shift—a citation or arrest, for example—officers move recordings to a file where they are saved until administrators delete them. The recordings also are burned to a disc and stored in evidence.
Each camera costs $600 to $800.
The Whitewater Police Department has 10 cameras—enough for every officer each shift.
Uhl predicted the cameras will pay for themselves with time saved.