After national controversies in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Gainesville Police started equipping officers with body cameras.
In April of this year, the department has upgraded to a new system matching the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said he believes the new cameras perform better than the older models they had.
"The older that technology got, the less it worked. How many people keep a cellphone for five years? You're looking at similar technology,” he said, as the department will have close to 100 cameras for all officers doing uniformed police work.
Body cameras have become a national talking point in the recent spotlight on police reform. The Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville’s civil rights group, has pushed for all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras and to “establish discipline” for officers who make arrests without turning on their cameras.
Parrish said he feels the body cameras keep the officer as accountable as the citizen, leading to a cutback on complaints. It is easier for the chief and his staff to get to the bottom of the investigation with the camera rolling.
Public defender Matt Leipold said body camera evidence helps determine the truth of a situation.
“The object of all legal investigation should be to get to the truth,” public defender Matt Leipold said in a statement. “Body cams aid that goal. We hope local authorities will continue to promote and expand the use of body cams, and we have already seen that juries expect to see this evidence.”
On cases involving obstruction or drug possession, public defender David Hoffer said the body camera footage can paint a slightly different picture than what is in the initial report.
“It’s what you see rather than what you’re told,” Hoffer said.
Georgia law requires body cam footage to be retained for 180 days. Footage of a vehicle wreck, arrest, use of force or criminal investigation must be retained for 30 months.
Parrish said officers are to turn on the cameras whenever possible before they have an interaction with a member of the public and keep it on until the end of that incident.
"We understand that there could be these emergent times when that's not possible, if you're having to jump out to help protect life or property, but those should be the exception, never the rule,” Parrish said. “If you get dispatched to a call, you know to go ahead and turn your body cam on and then you keep your recording all the way till you get disconnected.”
The cameras have a battery life of longer than 12 hours, according to the Axon website; the chief said the battery drains the most when the camera is recording.
An officer repeatedly flaunting the rules on body cameras could lose his job, as those policy violations are like any other as part of a progressive disciplinary plan in the department.
"If I thought the officer was being malicious, then I would ask the district attorney to take a look at it (of) not operating a body cam," Parrish said.
The camera technology also has certain triggers in some police vehicles, where activating the siren or the light bar will simultaneously flip on the camera. The new system has a function where an officer activating his/her body camera will also turn on nearby cameras.
"The (Hall County) Sheriff's Office has the same system, so if a deputy were to turn it on, it would turn ours on," Parrish said.
Excluding deputies deployed in the school system, all Sheriff’s Office deputies assigned a marked vehicle have a body camera. The county department first received its cameras in late 2018.
“What my goal was going into this next budget season was to be able to provide body cameras for the remainder, but we’ve got the essentials covered right now. Of course, with COVID-19, we’ve had to reduce our budget quite a bit, so that may be something that I have to put off for a while,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said.
Deputies are “required by our policy to activate the devices to record all contact with citizens in the performance of their official duties,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Policy also requires deputies to upload the footage at the end of their shifts with each file containing information related to the date, body-worn camera identifier and assigned officer,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Discussing previous malfunctions with the older body cameras, Parrish said he feels the new system will be “less likely to be interrupted.” The chief mentioned the camera head would separate from the memory source, particularly in incidents where the officer was in a struggle with another person.
"If they got to rolling around on the ground or whatever, if that thing came disconnected or moved the least little bit, it would become fuzzy or you could hear things but couldn't see them or you could see them and couldn't hear them,” Parrish said.
The department went through a six-month testing and evaluation period before choosing the Axon system, which has cloud-based storage for the recorded incidents.