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Cameras Go on Patrol with Chattanooga Police

Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)

Some of Chattanooga''s police officers now have extra eyes and ears on their patrols, officials said Tuesday.

About one in four of the Chattanooga Police Department''s 217 patrol cars recently were outfitted with video cameras, Sgt. Dennis Pedigo said. The technology should protect officers and motorists during traffic stops, he said.

"We''re hoping this will cut down on citizen complaints," Sgt. Pedigo said. "Officers and civilians will now know they are on video and audio recordings."

The police cameras are a first for Chattanooga, but they have been in place in Knoxville, Nashville and parts of North Georgia for at least five years, officials said. All officers in Knoxville ride with cameras, and in Nashville officers questioning suspected drunken drivers can record field sobriety tests, officials said.

Grady Baker with the International Association of Chiefs of Police has studied the effects of in-car cameras nationwide. About half of the nation''s patrol cars are equipped with in-car cameras, while four years ago only about 10 percent had them, he said.

"It''s being used to protect the police and protect the public," he said. "It''s the best witness. It doesn''t blink, and it doesn''t show bias."

Sgt. Pedigo said Chattanooga police officials tried for three years to get cameras for the department''s patrol vehicles. The system comes with a mounted monitor and officers can operate the camera by remote control, he said.

According to Dave Troxell, a mechanic for the city''s fleet services garage, the cameras record sound through a microphone attached to the officer''s uniform. Recording begins when an officer turns on the car''s blue lights, he said.

Hamilton County Sheriff''s Department spokesman Andy Derryberry said 12 of the 85 marked cars cruising Hamilton County highways each day have cameras.

"It used to be that only the large departments had cameras, but that''s changing," he said. "They are an asset to patrol and provide evidence that''s not refutable."

A $170,000 federal grant helped Chattanooga Police Department officials pay for the new equipment. Last week, the City Council approved the $380,000 to buy more cameras, Sgt. Pedigo said.

"Our goal is to get them in every patrol car as soon as possible," he said.

Barry Steelman, a Hamilton County assistant district attorney, said the cameras cannot be tampered with and can end the "he said, she said" nature of allegations common after traffic stops. Internal investigations prompted by false or misleading information often drag on, he said.

"Sometimes videos will work in our favor, and sometimes they will work in the favor of the accused," Mr. Steelman said. "In either case, they will help justice prevail."

The $3,400 cameras can provide solid evidence for drug-related, drunken driving, police misconduct and other criminal investigations, Mr. Steelman said. The devices act as an "eyewitness" during criminal prosecutions, he said.

"People then don''t just hear from a witness or hear about circumstantial evidence, but rather see the event as it occurred," Mr. Steelman said. "There is no better evidence than that."

According to Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers, a video camera saved at least one North Georgia deputy''s job. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation used a videotape to clear Deputy Jimmy Stockard in May of accusations of civil rights violations.

"There were allegations he used his vehicle as a weapon and used excessive force," Sheriff Summers said. "The video showed that wasn''t the case."

Red Bank Police Chief Larry Sneed said smaller departments also are looking to invest in car cameras. In areas where there are a limited number of officers, officials are optimistic that such cameras could expedite investigations, he said.

"We don''t have them yet, but we''re working on it," Chief Sneed said. "They''re good evidence to protect victims."

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