Police Body Cams in Oakland County…

Police Body Cams in Oakland County: Who Has Them, Who’s Getting Them, and Who Doesn’t Want Them

(Drew Saunders, Nov. 25, 2019)

Oakland County, MI – Ferndale, Lake Orion, Hazel Park, and Northville equip their police officers with body worn cameras. And while other departments are looking into the possibility of acquiring them as well, most of the officers in Oakland County won’t be getting them any time soon.

“It’s about the transparency and having an objective record of interactions between our officers and individuals who they have interactions with,” Mayor Ken Roth told the Oakland County Times last summer when Northville Police added them.

“I think it’s a nice achievement for a department our size,” he said.

Police are under increased scrutiny with residents using cell phones to record interactions, and social media to share their experiences.  A series of shootings of unarmed African American citizens by police in various locations nationwide began to get major media attention in the middle of this decade, prompting mass calls for increased transparency, compassion, and accountability.  Body cameras are one solution that’s gotten a lot of attention.  It’s also one that comes with both benefits and challenges.

Roll out of the technology in Oakland County has been happening in patches. Ferndale was one of the early adopters; beginning their camera program around a year and a half ago.

“We find them [the cameras] indispensable,” said Sgt. Baron Brown, the community engagement officer at the Ferndale Police Department. “They not only record the true facts of interviews and crimes, but they also allow the department to quickly check the validity of claims of misconduct or bias from officers.”

Ferndale approved the body cameras in Oct. 2017. This was one of many steps taken by the City Council and the Ferndale Police over the past few years to not only improve transparency, but to shift to a community policing mindset.  In 2014 the ACLU accused Ferndale Police of racial bias because the percentage of tickets written to black motorists was higher than the percentage of black residents. The ACLU report did not take into consideration the fact that most tickets are written on roads with heavy traffic such as Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile, and that the demographics of commuter traffic are more diverse than the population of the city itself.  Instead of comparing the population of drivers, they looked at the population of residents.  Nonetheless, the accusation did spark conversation and change. Some steps were implemented immediately, while body cameras took some time to research.

In addition to the cameras, Police have been working with Citizens for a Fair Ferndale’s Ferndale Inclusion Network as a way to have community discussions on topics such as the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, and “suspicious person” phone calls.  They also took part in discussions with other groups, such as the Ferndale Rotary. A consultant was hired to evaluate the police department and give other recommendations, and with the appointment of Chief Vincent Palazzolo, the department has been actively engaging with residents  and focusing on “community policing.”

The Community Policing model is one that is gaining popularity nation-wide, and the addition of body cameras is one component of a more connected department.  It is not just about arresting criminals, but promoting safety and well-being through trust and neighborly interaction.

City Councilperson-elect Kat Bruner James is the Chair of Citizens for Fair Ferndale as well as a Civil Rights Attorney who has been part of lawsuits against police (outside of Ferndale), including the Detroit Police and the Madison Heights Police.

“I think body cameras are a positive step for both potential claimants, as well as police themselves. … Video evidence can sometimes be the only source of objective evidence of interaction between a citizen and a law enforcement officer,” Bruner James said.  “Body cams aren’t the end all, be all. Angles aren’t always great. There may be distortions, whether intentional or unintentional. But they are a great step for providing transparency and providing evidence, either supporting a criminal complaint, or potentially supporting a complaint of police misconduct.”

The decision to use body cams is up to the individual departments.  Cities that don’t have their own department may contract with Michigan State Police or Oakland County Sheriff’s Department.  Sheriff Michael Bouchard says the County won’t be adding them any time soon.

“If they were used as a police accountability tool that is one thing, but as of now people’s privacy can be invaded for no reason,” Bouchard said. “We see people at some of their worst moments and the camera would capture it and it would be open to the public.”

State law does provide privacy protection for people who are captured in body camera video, but Bouchard and others worry that the protections are not enough. According to  PA 85 of 2018, body camera footage cannot be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act other than a few exceptions.  Individuals can request footage if it includes themselves, their property, or if it includes their children or someone else they are the guardian of.

The ACLU looks at the issue from both sides.  Their website states:

“Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse…At the same time, body cameras have more of a potential to invade privacy than those deployments. Police officers enter people’s homes and encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations.”

City and police officials in Bloomfield Hills, Keego Harbor, Walled Lake, Lathrup Village, South Lyon, Bingham Farms and Franklin all told the Oakland County Times that they had no plans to acquire these cameras. Neither do officials in Holly, Oak Park, Orchard Lake, Wixom, Troy, Sylvan Lake or Birmingham.

Southfield is currently testing different models for implementation, according to Chief Evyln Barren. Milford, Farmington, Madison Heights, Novi, Royal Oak and Pleasant Ridge also plan on getting cameras in the near future; albeit on different timetables. Lake Angelus’ police chief is still researching models, as is Auburn Hills.

In 2016, a petition was turned in with 185 signatures to put the requirement of body cameras on the Hazel Park ballot.  Rather than putting it on the ballot, City Manager Ed Klobucher refused, giving several reasons he was opposed to them, including cost and the newness of the technology. However, in the years since, the city has picked up the ball and now has every officer equipped.

Police chiefs in cities like Rochester and Clawson are considering the measure; waiting for reasons like wanting to see how the technology and laws around them develop. Other communities, like Wolverine Lake, are looking at how the technology is going to evolve and are going to wait and see if they want to add it in addition to their police car cameras, according to Wolverine Lake Police Chief John Ellsworth.

“We will not be getting body cameras until it becomes more affordable, reliable and the laws are clear on what can and cannot be released,” Ellsworth said. “Larger departments such as [the] Detroit Police Department are working out the bugs in the system and I will wait until the dust settles to decide in which direction we’ll go.”

Ferndale spent $120,846.20 for 30 body cameras in January 2018. Initial rollout of the devices was gradual, but Brown says that all officers have been using them since April of 2018. Northville invested over $70,000 in the body camera system that it is rolling out right now.

“I haven’t received a lot of feedback on the cameras, but the consensus is that they were a good thing to add,” Ferndale Mayor Dan Martin said. “It adds to accountability and it protects the officers, and everyone involved in an incident with the police. It adds a level of transparency that’s healthy for the community.”

Cities like Farmington Hills, which plans to introduce body-worn cameras soon, is getting $30,200 from the federal Department of Justice, according  to the Office of Justice Programs, which assists local law enforcement nationwide. Farmington Hills is getting $105,777 this fiscal year, including the body worn cameras, $21,655 for new in car cameras and other projects.

The problem brought up by official after official is that the real problem is finding a way to fund the data retention and storage in the long run, not the purchasing of equipment. The initial hurdle of purchasing the cameras is only half of the financial battle, getting enough money to store the footage requires a regular expenditure on top of often tight municipal budgets, keeping many communities from opting for the cameras.

Ferndale uses an on-site server, but Northville is using a third party server to store their data. Using the cloud to store footage is often touted as a solution.

For Lake Orion the cameras are a no-brainer.  Police Chief Jerry Narsh, who just left Lake Orion to be Chief of Holly Police, said, “At the LOPD we believe in transparency and clarity with our officers and public we serve. I have long been an advocate for in-car camera systems and activity pursued them for all police cars in our fleet starting in the 1980’s. I believe they are the best possible tool to show an accurate and honest representation of the facts.

“With that, we have recently purchased body cameras for our officers who wear them while on-duty. In my experience, the use of video/audio recording by officers has exonerated our officers over the years where concerns were raised and often provide additional facts for the purpose of investigations where the cameras recorded events and details that were not yet reported, but were preserved during routine patrol or other activity.”

He added that officers feel safer wearing them.   “We have not had an officer complaint filed since using body cameras, but have used the in-car camera systems to investigate citizen complaints with a 100% officer clearance rate as a result of the video/audio capture.”

Previous stories:

Northville Police Soon to be Wearing Body Cameras (Sept. 18, 2019)

Ferndale Approves Body Cameras for Police (Oct. 10, 2017)

HP Body Cam Petition Could End Up in Court Battle (May 25, 2016)

Doreen Olko: The Police Chief with Something to Say (Sept. 15, 2015)

Auburn Hills Police Chief Weighs in on Body Camera Debate Dec. 27, 2014

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