Janesville police officers see benefit in body cameras

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Sunday, May 6, 2012
— Whether or not they call for backup, Janesville police officers are filing hours of video files that will back up the officers in court or against the claim of an angry resident.

The Janesville Police Department took a few tries to find the perfect body camera, but for several months now officers have been electronically recording all their interactions with residents.

The video comes in handy during interviews, handling complaints and writing reports, officer Erin Briggs said.

In one instance, a resident complained that an officer did not explain why he had pulled her over and issued a traffic citation. A review of the video showed the officer had indeed explained the problem, why he was issuing a ticket and what the driver needed to do to follow up, Briggs said.

"It just kind of takes away the question mark," Briggs said.

The department was surprised to learn one of the ways officers like using the cameras, Briggs said. Officers find it helpful to watch the video while writing reports about intoxicated driving arrests.

It's hard to write notes about a field sobriety test when you have to watch someone attempt the test and count the number of steps he or she is taking, Briggs said. In the past, officers had to juggle a flashlight and a clipboard while never taking eyes off the suspected drunken driver, he said.

Now, the camera records the necessary information, and the officer can concentrate on the field sobriety test, he said.

"You can keep your eyes on them," he said.

The video cameras are about the size of a Bic lighter and clip onto an officer's uniform. They can be turned on and off with one touch, Deputy Chief John Olsen said.

At the end of a shift, officers download the video and leave cameras for the next shift. The department has about 40 cameras, which is more than enough to cover a shift but not enough for every officer to have his or her own, Olsen said.

The cameras cost about $75 each. They are a much better deal and more practical than previous models the department tried, Olsen said. The Janesville department has been using body cameras in one form or another for four years, Briggs said.

Previous models were more expensive and interfered with officers' radios and weren't used as consistently, Briggs said.

The cameras save time and hassle, Briggs said.

Officers are required to record interviews with juveniles, for example. In the past, officers had to take a juvenile to the police department to tape an interview. Now, they can record interviews in the field, he said.

Officers can wait to download videos at the end of a shift or download them onto laptops immediately after an incident, Briggs said.

Police do not have to inform people they are recording an interview or a traffic stop. Wisconsin is a one-party consent state. That means at least one, but not both, participants in a recorded conversation need to know the conversation is being recorded, Briggs said.

People familiar with the department or the officers have gotten to know what it means when an officer turns on a camera. It seems to encourage cooperation, Briggs said.

"It changes people's behavior," Briggs said. "At least once they're being recorded."

Last updated: 8:39 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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