Post Tribune May 8, 2015
Body cameras in place for Hammond police
Closeup of body camera. (Michelle L. Quinn, Post-Tribune)
By Michelle L. Quinn Post-Tribune
Hammond police outfitted with body cams
Hammond Police Sgt. Mike Schmidt says he never doubted its usefulness, but his new department-issued body camera proved its weight in gold during a recent traffic stop.Schmidt and his partner, who've had cameras since April 30, responded to a robbery call at a 165th Street convenience store on May 4. When they found a car matching the description of a car seen at the store driving away from a gas station, the officers pulled it over and started talking to the people inside, Schmidt said.
When they questioned the male passenger, Schmidt said his answers were cagey about his identity, including the fact that he said he didn't have a middle name. The woman driver, however, told his partner separately the man's name, he said. Schmidt went back to the man with the information, and the man told him the name she gave was his middle name. "I told him he'd just said he didn't have a middle name, and he said, 'I didn't say that,'" Schmidt said. "So I pulled out my phone and said, 'Well, we can take a look at the recording and I can show you what you said.' "He just put his head down because he knew I had him. We cuffed him and arrested him."
They look suspiciously like old pagers, but instead of being worn on the hip, they sit dead center on the chest. The Taser International AXON body cameras the Hammond Police Department are wearing promise to offer officers, as well as the public at large, an extra level of safety and veracity during traffic stops, according to Hammond Police Chief John Doughty.
Hammond is the first city in Northwest Indiana to fit its entire department with the cameras, Doughty said, though Gary is testing out its own cameras and Crown Point and Highland are looking in to them as well. The process of securing them started two years ago under former Police Chief Brian Miller, and back then, it almost wasn't worth it.
"The cameras back then had wires, and the technology was horrible," Doughty said. "Also, the climate for the officers with regard to social media wasn't nearly as severe as it is today. Today, they feel they need the protection."
The cameras are simple to work, said Capt. Rudy Grasha who, along with Cpl. Rich Simpson, is the point person on the cameras. The camera starts in standby mode; when an officer makes a traffic stop, all he or she has to do is tap the button twice, and the video starts recording from 30 seconds prior to when the button was pushed. There's no audio at that point, Grasha said.
The camera remains on for the duration of the stop, and then the officer puts it back on standby. The footage is then downloaded to cloud storage when officers' shifts are over.
"We need the 'Once upon a time,' to the 'Happy ending,'" Simpson said.
There are instances when the cameras will not be turned on or turned off during incidents. Hospital visits, for example, won't be recorded because of the potential for HIPAA violations, Doughty said.
That, however, changes when a suspect or person acts suspicious or violent in the hospital confines.
"I spoke to (Franciscan St. Margaret Health), and they're very understanding when it comes to doing our jobs," Doughty said.
A distressed victim is another time when the cameras would be turned off. A woman involved in a domestic violence situation may be in a position where she can't be left alone but has to get dressed; the camera in that situation would be left off.
"We will do everything possible to protect the victim's privacy. The offender, on the other hand, doesn't have any privacy," Doughty said.
As far as internal policies go, the officers don't have the cameras on continuously, so they too have some privacy, Doughty said. He's confident that as the officers grow to understand that the cameras won't be used against them, they'll be all the more comfortable with them.
"We have to get over this idea that the officers' cameras are to find them doing something wrong," he said. "If we get a citizen complaint, then, yes, we'll be able to examine the footage immediately to see if it's legitimate. But this is about accountability on both sides: If an officer is making a stop, he or she will be thinking about their approach, and if an offender knows the camera's on, we hope some people will curtail their behavior."
An accompanying app the officers have downloaded on their smartphones allows them to view footage while they write reports -- a handy advantage for them since they may not see or will forget certain elements during the stop. And footage generally won't be available until a case is adjudicated, but there are exceptions to that rule as well.
"If an officer is in an inflammatory situation and I feel it's in his best interest, I will jump through hoops to get it released for them," Doughty said. The five-year, $160,000 lease gives the department two camera refreshes, Simpson said.
Michelle L. Quinn is a freelance reporter.
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