‘Look-back’ body cams gain favor
News coverage of the Dec. 22, 2020, fatal shooting of a man walking toward a Columbus police officer while holding a cellphone produced a type of police body-camera video that many people probably didn’t know was possible.
Video from the body camera of officer Adam Coy showing Andre Hill being killed was possible because of a feature on the device called a “look-back.”
Lt. Tom Collins of the Austintown Police Department, whose Motorola body cameras have the look-back feature, explained that the feature requires that the camera be running at all times.
“Our body cameras are always on, and they are recording,” Collins said.
That does not mean the footage being recorded is all available for someone to see later, however.
In a 30-second look-back, a body camera stores the 30 seconds of video that it collected just before the officer pressed the start button.
With a 30-second look-back, the body camera records and temporarily stores 30 seconds of video, but at second 31, the first second of video is erased and replaced by a new second of video and so on.
In many police departments, officers are trained to press the start button on his or her body camera before they exit their cruiser, before an incident in which he or she is likely to encounter the public.
That means audio and video are recorded permanently from the time he or she presses the start button until he or she turns it back off.
The look-back feature is intended to help in situations in which an officer fails to turn the camera on until just after a significant event takes place.
Such was the case with officer Coy in Columbus last month and with Niles police officer Christopher Mannella in January 2019, when Mannella shot and killed Niles resident Matthew Burroughs, 35, in the parking lot of Burroughs’ apartment complex.
When Coy pressed the start button on his body camera, it saved the 60 seconds of video that his body camera picked up just prior to him pressing the start button and continued to record from that point on.
It captured 60 seconds of video but not 60 seconds of audio. The look-back feature typically does not include audio. Once Coy pressed start, the camera began to record audio and video, and Coy could be heard giving commands to Hill as Hill lay dying.
In Niles, Mannella’s body camera was not equipped with the look-back feature, Niles police Chief Jay Holland explained last week.
Mannella pressed the start button about 10 seconds after firing the last of his three shots at Burroughs. The first images Mannella’s body camera showed were of fellow officer James Reppy walking up to the driver’s window of Burroughs’ car, looking in and saying, “He’s hit.”
A few seconds later, Mannella could be heard saying, “fricking running me over.”
Both shootings provoked intense public scrutiny because neither man killed was armed with a firearm.
One of the complaints about the Niles incident was that neither Mannella nor fellow officer Paul Hogan activated their body cameras prior to the shooting. Reppy activated his according to policy, turning it on as he approached the apartment complex in his cruiser a short time before the shooting took place. It did not capture what happened just before the shooting, but it provided useful information. It showed the moments just after Mannella began to fire his weapon. Reppy also fired into the back of Burroughs’ car to protect Mannella, but none of his shots hit Burroughs.
Mannella and Reppy later were cleared of wrongdoing by a Trumbull County grand jury, but the estate of Burroughs filed a civil suit that still is pending.
Holland said the department first bought Wolfcom body cameras in October 2016. The first ones did not offer a look-back feature. Such cameras have to be replaced about every 2 to 2 1/2 years because the batteries lose their effectiveness over that amount of time, he said.
“The new cameras have the option for look-back, but when we field tested them, the batteries wouldn’t last the whole shift, so we don’t use them,” Holland said.
There are other brands of body cameras, but Holland said he has found that one of the most popular brands, Axon, wants the purchaser to buy storage of the audio and video from them.
“Axon has a very good product, but it’s expensive. It’s storage is expensive,” he said. He said he believes the storage cost for Niles would be about $20,000 per year.
“We store ours in-house. We run servers,” he said.
The Niles Police Department is “pretty satisfied with our vendor and their software and see no reason to change” to another vendor, Holland said.
Mannella and Hogan received written reprimands for not activating their body cameras before the confrontation with Burroughs began.
Holland said he does not recall any of his officers getting a written reprimand or other discipline for violating the department’s body camera policy since then.
Holland said a Niles police lieutenant audits body camera videos every month to check compliance with the body-camera policy.
If he finds that an officer is not turning on the body camera before getting out of the car, the lieutenant “will address that in a counseling session,” Holland said.
That type of violation is generally a minor one. “If he forgets to turn it on just before he gets out of the car, he’s made aware of that and it’s documented,” Holland said.
Then, “if it continues or there are more eggregious violations, we have a documentation trail. You start out with coaching and accelerate from there. But we haven’t had an instance where we had to go above the simple coaching session,” he said.
Austintown police’s Collins said there are different look-back periods available on body cameras, but the 30-second look-back appears to be pretty common. Motorola offers a body camera with a five-day look-back, but long look-backs like that or even an hour create “a huge Pandora’s box of issues.”
When a body camera is recording continously for hours and hours, it creates privacy issues for the officer wearing it, such as what to do when using the restroom or talking on the phone with his or her spouse. Body camera videos are considered a public record, so the public can ask for and receive copies of them, Collins noted.
“Imagine you are wearing a body camera on your chest throughout your day. You are talking with individuals,” Collins said. “You are having a private conversation. It’s recording it.”
He said long look-backs on an officer’s body camera could cause the officer to take the camera off while using the restroom or going home to eat, but that could lead to the officer not having it on when an important call comes.
“If he gets on the scene of a shooting and, heaven forbid, he shoots someone, you know as well as I do that he is going to be vilified because he didn’t have his body cam on him because he took it off to go to the bathroom,” Collins said. “And no matter how he tries to sell that, he is going to lose in the court of public opinion.”
One of the big reasons body cameras and look-backs were created was to improve accountabiity of law enforcement officers.
But the look-back also can aid in solving crimes. It can help when an officer is trying to make a traffic stop, for example, and the vehicle takes off and the officer did not get the license plate, Collins said.
“We play the video back, and it helps with the plate or type and model of car,” he said.
Another example might be where someone tosses something out of a car and takes off. Turning on the camera and playing back the earlier 30 seconds could help establish what happened.
Collins agreed the look-back feature is not a foolproof way of getting video and audio of an officer making a mistake because the officer still could make the conscious decision not to turn on the camera until at least 30 seconds after a mistake is made.
Several other Mahoning Valley police departments have body cameras, including Campbell, Girard and the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office.
The Warren Police Department is getting 20 body cameras that should be in use sometime this spring, police Chief Eric Merkel said. They will have the 30-second look-back.
But that won’t seem unusual to his officers because his department has had dash cameras with a 30-second look-back for about a decade.
Merkel said one way officers have used the 30-second look-back in the past is to turn on the camera en route to a potentially volatile situation, in order to record cars leaving the area of the call.
Another way they have been used is to park near an intersection, and when someone commits a stop-sign violation, the officer has turned on the dash cam to record the violation that was just committed.
The biggest reasons for not having body cameras earlier was cost, Merkel said, noting that the department has cars with 175,000 miles on them. Given the choice of a better cruiser or body camera, the cruiser would be the first priority, he said.
The cost for a server to store videos, software to redact images such as juvenile faces or nudity, the cameras and a few other items is about $95,000.
In Campbell, new cameras, hardware and software have been installed in the police department’s six regularly used vehicles. Body cameras and car cameras will sync, allowing for what police Chief Pat Kelly said is “complete transparency.” To fund the technology upgrade, city council paid $58,000, which included equipping the vehicles with the cameras, software and hardware. An additional $30,000 in grant funds went toward body cameras.
The Girard Police Department has had body cameras since February 2019. The cameras have a look-back feature, though police Chief John Norman said he does not recall a situation where the feature was used or needed.
Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene said the first set of body cameras his department used had the 30-second look-back, but the current cameras do not.
He said the vendor that provides cameras to the sheriff’s office provides storage for the videos and provides replacement cameras for free when it is time to replace them. The department got replacement cameras about eight months ago.
He said the benefits of the body cameras are that they provide evidence that prosecutors can use to prosecute criminals. But having them also “shows transparency of your agency and raises the bar on how your officers treat the public.”
The Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office does not have body cameras and has no current plans to get them.
“In an ideal world, we would have them,” Chief Deputy Joe Dragovich said. “The issue is cost.” Grants can get a department started on paying for them, but won’t nearly cover everything, he said. “At this time, the sheriff would prefer to have more deputies.”
Dragovich said in the several years since Paul Monroe became sheriff, the agency has replaced a lot of worn out cruisers and is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar security and safety upgrade at the jail.
“We try to teach our people to operate like you’re always being recorded, because you might be,” he said.