March 20 2015 12:00 AM

Lawmakers, agencies consider police body cameras


LANSING — The shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer and similar incidents across the country have led to calls to equip police officers with body cameras that can capture video of their actions.

The idea is simple: When camera-wearing police clash with civilians, there will be no debate about what happened because the footage will tell the story.

Legislation has been introduced by House Democrats that would require any law enforcement officer who carries a firearm to be equipped with a body cam. The bill is currently stalled in the Criminal Justice Committee.

Many Michigan law enforcement agencies are not waiting for a state law and are introducing body cameras themselves.

In his state of the city address, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he wants Detroit to be one of the leaders in the United States in equipping police officers with body cams. The city recently began a pilot program to test the use of body cams.

The Michigan State Police has about two dozen body cameras being used by troopers in southeast Michigan, according to Tiffany Brown, Public Information Officer for the State Police.

The idea of equipping officers with body cams is not a partisan issue, with some Republicans voicing their support for the idea.

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he supports the the use of body cams, and believes that they will be used to exonerate police officers against accusations.

“I think in 99 percent of the cases the cameras will show that the police officer took the right action,” said Jones, who before serving in the state legislature was Sheriff of Eaton County.

In fact, many law enforcement officials express support for the use of body cams.

In Grosse Pointe Farms, the police department purchased body cams for officers, but their use is voluntary.

“I think it will eventually develop into a mandatory compliance,” said Rich Rosati, detective lieutenant with the Grosse Pointe Farms Police Department.

As to how his fellow officers feel about wearing a body cam, Rosati said, “I’ve heard more positives than negatives; officers are looking at it as a way of protecting themselves.”

While body cams may sound good in theory, some have cautioned that the implementation must be well planned.

“The concept is sound,” said Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. “But the devil is in the details.”

Jungel expressed concerns over what situations the camera would be recording, whether the video will be subject to freedom of information requests and the logistics and cost of storing footage.

Jungel was concerned body cams could be an invasion of privacy, for both officers and citizens.

“You can’t film everything all the time,” Jungel said. “There’s a fine line between turning it on and turning it off.”

In situations involving a confidential informant, a body cam would be impractical. There are also cases when you enter a home and the homeowner would rather you not be recording, Jungel said.

A committee in the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association is looking into body cam policies and procedures, in order to ensure all of these concerns are addressed, Jungel said.

Even if the procedural issues are addressed, state mandated body cam legislation may be unlikely to see the light of day, due to lack of funding.

Although the total cost of the legislation has not been estimated yet, most programs in the state are facing cuts as the House Fiscal Agency recently projected a $454 million deficit this year.

“I don’t believe the state of Michigan will ever pass a mandate making every police department have the cameras,” Jones said. “The money isn’t there in the state right now.”

Despite the logistical, procedural and funding difficulties that come with body cam legislation, the concept has strong support among people with experience in law enforcement.

When asked how they would respond if they were working the field today, Jones, Jungel and Rosati all agreed: They would want to be equipped with a body cam.

— COLLIN KRIZMANICH

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