Plan to equip Ohio police cruisers with cameras isn't in sight

Federal funding sought for costly devices

Copyright 2006 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved

The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Columbus police officers fatally shot an armed man after a traffic chase this month, two of the cruisers on the scene were equipped with video cameras.

Neither worked.

The incident highlighted how far the Police Division is from achieving Mayor Michael B. Coleman's 6-year-old goal of installing cameras in all of the city's patrol cruisers.

Of the roughly 200 cruisers on the city's streets and highways, 63 are equipped with cameras, said Lt. Charles Chapman, of the police property section.

An additional 20 cameras are in storage, removed for repairs or waiting to be installed in new cruisers ordered this year.

"The cameras are a vital law-enforcement tool," Chapman said. "It's in the city's best interest to have these in every cruiser. It benefits everyone, except the criminal."

The most recent batch of cameras was purchased four years ago.

"They're worn out," said Ralph Gillilan, a police property clerk. "These cameras take a beating. The bottom line is, they all need replaced."

The safety director's office is looking to the U.S. Justice Department for help. A recent grant will allow the purchase of 31 cameras for the freeway patrol, said Assistant Safety Director Barb Seckler.

The city is preparing another application to seek federal funding for 170 cameras to cover the rest of the patrol fleet, she said.

Most of the city's cameras use 8mm videotape, but the new cameras are likely to use digital technology.

Digital cruiser cameras, including software and microphones for the officers, can cost up to $6,000 each, Chapman said.

Although the cameras are seen as important, police administrators have been more inclined to spend capital funds to replace the aging cruisers than to add cameras.

Officer Robert Barrett of the freeway patrol drives a cruiser equipped with one of the division's few VHS cameras. He's heard complaints about problems with the 8mm systems.

"I love this camera," he said. "I'm hoping when I get my next cruiser, I can keep this particular camera. I don't ever want to be in a car without one."

Barrett said the small camera, mounted beside the rearview mirror, is invaluable in recording the erratic driving of impaired motorists and the resulting field-sobriety tests on drunken-driving suspects. The cameras can be turned to record interviews with suspects in the cruiser's back seat.

With the images, "convictions go up," Barrett said.

The videos also exonerate most officers accused of rude or abusive behavior, he said.

In February, a videotape of a State Highway Patrol trooper fatally shooting an armed man after a traffic stop in Fayette County provided dramatic evidence that the trooper was in a life-and-death struggle with the man before shooting him. The tape confirmed the trooper's version of events, showing that the suspect fired first.

Of the Highway Patrol's roughly 1,200 marked cruisers, about 1,000 are equipped with cameras, said Sgt. Craig Cvetan.

In the past year, troopers have fired their weapons in four incidents, and three of the shootings were caught on cruiser video, he said.

The Franklin County sheriff's office has about a dozen cameras for its 42 patrol cars, said Sgt. Carl Hickey. Most of the cameras use 8mm video, but the agency wants to switch to digital and find funding to get cameras in all marked cruisers.

The state's major cities vary in their use of cruiser cameras.

In Cincinnati, all 266 of the city's marked cruisers are equipped with cameras, said Lt. Thomas Lanter. The city is in the process of upgrading from VHS and has installed digital cameras in 102 cruisers.

In Cleveland, the police cruisers don't have cameras, although a pilot program is studying the technology, said Lt. Thomas Stacho.

The cameras are automatically activated when an officer turns on a cruiser's lights and siren. The equipment also can be manually activated from inside the cruiser or from a remote switch on the officer's belt.

A monitor inside the cruiser allows the officer to see what the camera is recording and to zoom in or out on objects such as license plates.

The tapes are treated as evidence and are stored in the police property room. The Columbus policy is to retain each tape for two years. A cabinet in the property room holds more than 7,600 8mm tapes and more than 1,880 VHS tapes, Chapman said.

The images from digital cameras can be downloaded to a computer, making storage easier, he said.

Regardless of the format, the resulting images are seen as critical sources of evidence for officers such as Barrett.

"The camera doesn't lie," he said. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

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