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Texas police add body cameras to gear

Fort Worth police are using seized money to purchase the body cameras for their force

By Bill Miller
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH — Police hope a small piece of high-tech equipment will deliver big results as it records officers' interactions with the public.

The Taser Axon Flex camera, which attaches to uniform collars or the temple of eyeglasses, was demonstrated Wednesday at police headquarters in downtown Fort Worth.

(Photo courtesy TASER Axon Flex)
(Photo courtesy TASER Axon Flex)

Think of it as "dash-cam" technology that can record such things as witness interviews and evidence collection.

It's also intended to settle disputes between police and residents who believe that they have been unfairly treated or arrested, said Sgt. Scott Sikes, who is in charge of implementing the program.

"We've seen dash-cams in police cars for years," Sikes said. "This technology allows officers to take that recording device with them as they leave the car.

"In cities around the country that have already tested these, or different models of these, they've had a significant reduction in numbers of complaints against officers."

The images will be uploaded to the Internet-based Evidence.com storage system, Sikes said, and officers cannot edit or alter the data. Residents may obtain copies of the footage through open-records requests.

Taser is better known for producing electroshock weapons that are intended to be "less-than-lethal" alternatives to police gunfire.

Sikes said the department bought the company's cameras because of the options offered for attaching to uniforms or equipment.

Previously, some officers bought their own cameras, paying $30 to $700. But that approach lacked uniformity and a central storage place for images.

The department began testing the little cameras in May 2012, and 50 patrol officers were issued the devices in May.

The department has ordered 145 more and hopes to have 500 in operation within two years, said Cpl. Tracey Knight, a police spokeswoman.

Within three years, the plan is for 60 to 75 percent of the department's 700 patrol officers to have the cameras, as well as half the personnel in special groups such as zero-tolerance and gang units and SWAT teams.

The cost of the 145 units on order is about $670,000, which includes the devices and access to Evidence.com storage, Sikes said. Taxpayers are not footing the bill: The money was seized from drug dealers, he said.

An example of when a camera would have been useful was the deadly encounter between two police officers and a Woodhaven resident May 28. The officers, who were at the wrong house looking for a burglar, say that they ordered resident Jerry Waller, 72, to drop his revolver but that he pointed it at them. One officer fired, killing Waller, according to police.

The case is being investigated by the Tarrant County district attorney's office.

"There is no [video] record of the shooting," Knight said. "I wish there was.

"Our job as a police department is to find the truth. This allows us to have an accurate and irrefutable account of any police encounters, and that's what our citizens and police officers deserve -- the truth."

Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said he believes that officers generally favor the cameras but that the devices are not a replacement for dogged police work.

To illustrate, he noted that the National Football League uses cameras to help officials make rulings on the field but that the images are sometimes inconclusive.

"The bottom line is, we want to caution everybody that a videotape of an event does not take the place of a thorough investigation," Hall said.

Sikes said the technology does have limitations.

"Is it going to capture everything that goes on? Obviously not," he said. "We can't get a camera that gets 360 degrees. But this gives the officer's perspective of what happened at that time."

Copyright 2013 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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