Fort Worth

Fort Worth police out front in use of body cameras

Local police are ahead of the curve with the use of body cameras, which President Barack Obama has proposed to provide to law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Fort Worth has more than 600 Axon Flex body cameras, the second-most of any police force in the nation, officials said.

Of those, 420 are assigned to officers in the field, which is expected to grow to about 550 by year’s end, said Cpl. Tracey Knight, a police spokeswoman.

On Monday, in response to unrest over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Obama proposed spending $75 million to buy 50,000 body cameras for police across the nation.

The president’s plan drew praise from Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead, whose department began using such cameras more than three years ago.

“What I’m most happy about with the president’s announcement is now it seems like it has this national, more global, endorsement,” Halstead said Tuesday.

Halstead said he has issued no formal discipline against an officer for behavior captured on camera but said that in two instances, officers’ jobs have been saved because of the video recordings.

One incident involves a shooting that remains under investigation, he said, and the other dealt with officers involved in an altercation with the occupant of a car.

“If we would have just relied on the dashcam video from about 80 feet away, it looks like we violated someone’s civil rights,” Halstead said. “The fact that we have two officers with cameras on, you could clearly see they were being assaulted by an occupant of the vehicle. Because we were within inches instead of 80 feet away, it gave a clear depiction of what occurred in that vehicle.”

Obama’s plan would require local and state agencies to provide matching funds for the cameras. He made his comments while meeting Monday with civil-rights leaders and law enforcement officials from across the country, a week after a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in the August killing of Brown, who was black.

‘Bridging concerns on both sides’

Halstead said he pushed for adding the on-officer cameras for “more personal reasons than professional reasons.”

He said he was inspired by a Spring Break trip to Florida in 1983 at age 19, when he was harassed and assaulted by an officer.

“If that would have been on camera. that would have probably changed not just my life, that would probably have put that officer in jail,” Halstead said. “The fact that I had nothing happen, I can only imagine the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of street contacts where residents are frustrated nothing was caught on tape.”

According to a report recently released from the Justice Department, the Police Department in Rialto, Calif., had an 88 percent drop in citizen complaints against officers in a yearlong period of using the cameras. Use of force against suspects also declined, the report says.

Halstead said the cameras can be a key in developing trust and confidence between police and the community.

“Right now in policing, regardless of which neighborhood you choose or which state you choose, if there’s any element of mistrust, I see this as the only available technology to start bridging concerns on both sides,” Halstead said.

Halstead said the challenge in adopting body cameras is that departments must also implement policies for camera use and ensure secure video retention and accessibility. Videos categorized as criminal or administrative will be kept for a minimum of two years, whereas those not categorized will be destroyed after 180 days.

So far, Fort Worth officers have recorded more than 100,000 videos, which are stored at evidence.com, Knight said.

“It’s almost like you see the iceberg photos. The little tip of the iceberg is that camera. This giant mass under the water is all the efforts that have to take place to make your program successful,” Halstead said.

‘Ferguson is the tipping point’

The Axon Flex cameras, made by Taser International of Arizona, use a 130-degree wide-angle lens that officers can mount on eyeglasses or a collar, allowing them to seamlessly record “digital evidence,” according to the company’s website.

Sydney Siegmeth, Taser International’s public relations director, said that “Ferguson is the tipping point” for the use of body cameras and that more agencies are taking notice.

“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of agencies wanting to test the cameras,” Siegmeth said Tuesday.

She said that 35 major cities are testing the cameras and that San Francisco has already placed an order. Los Angeles has indicated plans to order cameras, she said.

Winston-Salem, N.C., has more Axon Flex cameras than any other department nationwide, with about 900; Fort Worth is No. 2 with 615.

“Fort Worth is ahead of the curve,” Siegmeth said.

In March, the City Council approved spending $216,490 on body cameras for the remaining fiscal year with the option to renew the agreement with Taser over the next five years for no more than $501,000 annually.

This article includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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