By Kate Elizabeth Queram, Route Fifty
In 2016, the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office introduced body-worn cameras for patrol deputies. Within a year, citizen complaints of police misconduct in the southwestern Wyoming county decreased. Encouraged by those results, the department last month deployed body-worn cameras on deputies inside the county jail, becoming the first county detention facility in the state of Wyoming to use the technology.
The hope, officials said, is that the cameras will allow correctional officers and inmates to have more pleasant encounters while also improving security at the facility.
“Until the body camera program, just like most jails, our security consisted of a network of stationary surveillance cameras,” said Deputy Jason Mower, the department’s public information officer. “As you can imagine, those surveillance cameras don’t capture any audio and they’re fixed, so there are situations … where the existing network doesn’t always provide an angle or the audio to prove or disprove an allegation. Through our experience at the jail, and a review of jail operations after the sheriff took office, it became pretty clear to us that these body cameras would work here.”
The sheriff’s office uses Axon point-of-view cameras that clip onto the side of an officer’s head, either attached to glasses (the officer’s own prescription lenses or a non-prescriptive pair provided by the company) or a band that wraps around the back of the deputy’s head. Sworn deputies working inside of the jails are required to have their cameras turned on whenever they enter secured portions of the facility where inmates congregate, including common areas, hallways and housing units.
Video from the cameras is stored in the cloud, and random clips are periodically chosen for review by supervisors. Anything out of the ordinary—an unprofessional interaction, a safety issue—is addressed one on one.
“It’s a training tool more than anything,” Mower said. “It’s an opportunity for the supervisors to stay in touch with the day-to-day and what their people are doing.”
The jail’s inmate handbook was updated to reflect the change, Mower said, and the department has not received complaints or concerns about violating inmates’ privacy.
“We’re not walking in when you’re using the restroom,” he said. “They’re not used during strip searches or in the medical portion of the facility.”
And if sensitive footage is needed for a court case, it can be edited to preserve the privacy of inmates who are not directly involved in the incident in question, he said.
“If there was a group of inmates showering in a common area shower, and a physical altercation broke out, that’s a possible crime—assault or battery,” he said. “So any body-cam footage could potentially become evidence in a criminal proceeding. At the same time, if you’re one of those inmates in there showering and not involved, the system allows us to work with the attorneys when the time comes to redact certain things and blur people out, so your privacy is protected.”
Nationwide, body cameras have become relatively common for patrol officers and deputies in police departments and sheriff’s offices. They’re less ubiquitous in detention facilities, particularly at the county level, though a handful of jails—in Prince George’s County, Maryland and Humboldt County, California, for example—have implemented the technology. Since Sweetwater’s program went live in December, Mower has fielded questions from several other counties about how the office made the decision and what the implementation process was like. The decision to move forward with the change was easy, he said—the department was already comfortable with the technology and the $25,000 cost of expanding it to the jail wasn’t prohibitive.
“It’s really pennies on the dollar compared to what the county would have to pay out if a suit was brought against our detention staff,” he said. “It’s kind of like insurance. It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. I just really think that in the detention setting, it encouraged more positive interactions between the deputies and the inmates. The inmates can see it, they know what it is, they know what it’s doing and there are times when it serves, in and of itself, as a de-escalation tool.”
Despite their ubiquity among law enforcement officers, the effects of body-worn police cameras are unclear. Researchers from George Mason University last year found that while the cameras “reduce the number of overall complaints against officers,” their “impacts on other police behaviors are less conclusive.”
The study, which analyzed 70 other studies on body-worn cameras, found that cameras had not had statistically significant effects on most other measures of officer and citizen interaction, including arrest rates and public perception of law enforcement. Researchers also reported mixed results on the impact that the cameras had on the use of force. Five studies, they wrote, found that officers who wore cameras used less force than officers who didn’t, but eight others found no difference between the two groups.
But Mower said the cameras have been unequivocally a valuable tool in Sweetwater County.
“Our experience has been that they’re an incredible evidence-gathering tool and they by and large have helped us,” he said. “It has been our experience that it instills a more professional encounter, not just on behalf of the officer, but also the citizen.”
WitnessLA Editor’s Note: Here in Los Angeles County, officials have not rolled out body cameras to jail or to patrol deputies, apart from a 9-month pilot program that put cameras on 96 officers between four LASD stations from September 2014 to April 2015. Last month, the sheriff’s department released a proposed body cam policy for patrol, the latest step in an 8-year journey toward implementing body cams.
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.