NEW ORLEANS - The next time you call a police officer for help, you'll likely end up on camera. Members of the New Orleans Police Department are now armed with a device the Superintendent calls a game changer, but it's not a weapon, rather a camera.
They can be mounted on helmets, goggles but more frequently they're mounted on the body of a police officer and the cameras are capturing some of the dangerous and unpredictable situations police encounter on any given day.
One situation was captured last September. Video released by the Taser Company show Daytona Police officers kicking in a door and then pleading with a knife wielding man holding a woman hostage. Police have their weapons drawn.
"Let her go dude, let her go right now man, I'm telling you now," one officer says in the video.
The man can be seen moving the knife downward toward the woman. Officers open fire. The suspect, former NFL player Jermaine Green, survived. The hostage was saved. The video later helped to determine the shooting was justified. It's a prime example of the capabilities of new technology being used by New Orleans Police.
"The way that this camera works, when the officer has an incident, or dispatched to a call, they're just going to basically activate this camera, they're going to double tap this button, which is going to cause the device to into record mode," said Lt. Travis St. Pierre.
Lieutenant Travis St. Pierre is overseeing the NOPD's training for the body camera which was developed by the Taser Company. It's the same company which developed the hand held Taser devices that often "shock" suspects into submission. New Orleans Police superintendent Ronal Serpas said the body cameras are changing law enforcement and its perception.
"One of the key pieces in reforming the New Orleans Police Department is trust and confidence of the community. What the body worn camera will do for us is give us an unbiased, unvarnished recreation of what actually happened," said Serpas.
An example of how the body camera can make a difference can be found in an NOPD officer involved shooting earlier this year. In February, Officer Jonathan Hirdes shot and killed 31-year-old Keith Atkinson. Police were responding to a shoplifting call in the Hollygrove neighborhood.
What happened next is under investigation. Police say Atkinson presented a threat and Hirdes reached for his gun. Atkinson was shot four times. Investigators recovered a handgun from the scene, but witnesses at the time criticized the police shooting.
"They barely had time to say freeze, they just started shooting. He fell on the ground and they kept shooting. They stood over him like a dog. They treated him like a dog," said one man who identified himself as relative.
The shooting is under investigation, but had a body camera been used, the circumstances may be clearer. Cases like the shooting death of Henry Glover could further strengthen the need for body cameras. In 2005, amid the chaos and confusion of hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Police Officer David Warren shot and killed Glover at a strip mall in Algiers.
Warren testified that he used deadly force because he feared for his life and that Glover had a gun. Glover's burned remains were discovered later inside a car in what prosecutors called a police cover up. Glover's aunt disputes Warren's story, claiming her nephew had no gun. Now, she has no confidence in the NOPD.
"My family doesn’t trust the police, no we do not. They failed us," said Rebecca Glover.
A federal jury ultimately acquitted David Warren in the shooting death of Henry Glover. To this day, the Glover family still questions what exactly happened at the shopping center. With the implementation of the news body cameras, Chief Serpas is hopeful if and when deadly force is used in the future, the cameras can reveal that it was justified.
"I was the chief of the state patrol in Washington State. I was the chief in Nashville Tennessee and I'm the chief in New Orleans. At any one of those departments I would have bought these things because, while New Orleans has a unique set of circumstances of trust and confidence, every police department in America wants to have more trust and confidence. Being able to recreate these events with videos is going to be a game changer, that's what's going to make a difference for us," said Serpas.
"I'm for him doing this because you have to do something. I mean our people are being abused in the street, murdered and whatever else, not only by perpetrators but by police. I understand all police are not bad, but it doesn’t take for a few apples to spoil the whole barrel," said Rebecca Glover.
The entire department is now learning the basics of the cameras like how to properly attach them to uniforms and how long they can be in action. The body cameras have a twelve-hour battery life and can record up to nine hours of action. They also have a 130 degree field of view, capturing 30 frames of picture per second with audio. The cameras are meant to record what the officer sees, says and hears. A buffer feature keeps the camera continuously alert, so when police hit record, the video actually captures what took place 30 seconds prior.
"We don't want it to start recording after whatever he (the officer) saw occur. We want to go back and catch what he saw, what got his attention, so that's why you have a buffering system. Our car for example, car cameras go back 30 seconds as well to cover what the violation was to capture on video," Lt. St. Pierre.
The body camera is a relatively new technology. There's not much data on its efficacy, but in a study released last year, and one that was commissioned by the Police Foundation, found information that supporters of the cameras are quick to point out. The Rialto Police Department in California which used the cameras for a year saw complaints against officers drop by more than 80 percent. Perhaps more importantly the use of force by officers fell by nearly 60 percent.
"The video camera is going to make everybody change. When you know when you're being filmed everybody changes when the camera is on. If you go back to the original days of the hand held Taser device once video was added to that device we started seeing voluntary compliance by people that were on the verge of resisting and we started seeing officers recognizing that I'm being videotaped. I'm going to make sure I'm going to do the right techniques that I'm going to do the right strategies because this is a record of what I did," said Serpas
Much, if not all of the impact of the body camera, is predicated on the officer. The cameras must be physically flipped into record mode. Rebecca Glover has her doubts.
"How are we going to be able to be certain that the police are not going to be able to take these cameras off and do what they want to do? I mean is there somebody that's going to be there to monitor them and see why they don't have these cameras on?" said Glover.
Legal analyst Chick Foret says the body cameras have their benefits but also raise questions of privacy for both police and the public. He says clear policies on use must be written.
"Does the police officer have the opportunity to edit the videotape? Who is going to have the availability to view the videotape? Is it only going to be able to be viewed by people who are licensed to view it? So we have a whole issue of editing, of turning the camera on and off, who is going to have access to the video. These policies must be clearly spelled out," said Foret.
Chief Serpas said there will be safeguards and limits on who can access and view the videos, but for the most part, anything captured on the cameras is considered a public act, so expectations of privacy are low to none. As for making sure officers actually turn on the cameras and use them, Serpas says there will be penalties. If a report is submitted without a corresponding video, that will raise a red flag for possible reprimand.
"I think our officers don't get recognized for the good jobs that they do. All that we hear is the bad, and these cameras are going to show everything we do, good and bad either one," said Lt. St. Pierre.
An estimated one in six law enforcement agencies across the country are placing cameras on bodies to accompany guns in holsters. Now the NOPD will be responsible to not only capture criminals, but also, capture it all on camera. For the first year of use, the department will spend roughly $280,000 on the cameras and data storage.
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supports the recording of police interactions but it has concerns about the security of stored videos and who can access them.