Cleveland police have begun wearing body cameras as part of a program to outfit 1,500 officers with the devices, the department announced Wednesday, nearly 10 weeks after a city police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was holding a toy gun.
Wednesday’s announcement makes Cleveland the latest city to deploy body cameras as a transparency measure following a controversial police killing in the last year.
Cleveland spent $2.4 million to outfit nearly all of the city’s 1,510 officers with Taser’s Axon Flex body-worn cameras, and at least 200 officers in one of the city’s high-crime neighborhoods are expected to begin wearing the devices by the end of the week, according to Det. Jennifer Ciaccia, a police spokeswoman.
“The cameras will provide accurate documentation of police/citizen encounters and assist with reporting, evidence collection and court testimony,” the department said in a statement. “Body-worn cameras have been shown to reduce the number of complaints and use-of-force incidents in law enforcement.”
The deployment of the cameras comes a little more than two months after Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed Tamir seconds after approaching the boy in his patrol car. Tamir was holding a toy gun.
Police union officials have said Loehmann, a rookie officer with a troubled past who had been dismissed from another police department before he was hired in Cleveland, believed the gun was real and did not realize Tamir was so young.
Ciaccia said that the department has been researching the use of body cameras since 2012 and that some officers began wearing them as part of a pilot program last summer.
Civil rights advocates, however, say they think the department sped up its decision to deploy the body cameras because of Tamir’s death as well as a Department of Justice investigation that found Cleveland police routinely use excessive force.
“The ACLU has been getting complaints about the department since the beginning of time,” said Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “They’ve paid out millions of dollars in settlements to avoid the publicity of the courtroom, so cameras have always been on the list as one of the strategies.”
Although Link welcomed the cameras as an accountability measure, she also questioned the department’s decision to pay such a hefty price for them when budget shortfalls have limited the city’s ability to purchase other needed police equipment.
The Police Department is in dire need of more computers in its precincts, according to Link, who said she had received complaints that as many as three dozen officers sometimes have to share one computer to file police reports.
She also said the department’s communications systems are outdated and easily overwhelmed. Link pointed to reports suggesting that Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir, was not informed of the boy’s age or the fact that the person who placed a 911 call before the shooting told police the gun was likely a toy.
The cameras are to constantly record video of an officer’s activities in 30-second loops, but are supposed to record longer sections of audio and video during police pursuits, vehicle stops and other interactions between officers and the public.
“The community is demanding cameras. Cameras are fine -- they’re a tool -- but tools are only as good as the people that control them,” Link said.
The recordings will be maintained on an evidence collection website managed by TASER and will be subject to open public records requests in Ohio, Ciaccia said. Officers will not be able to edit, delete or alter recordings once the footage is stored on the server, according to the department’s policy on camera usage.
Officers, however, will have to manually switch between the two recording methods, Ciaccia said. Also, the cameras will not actually record “for storage purposes” unless the officer presses a button on the device.
Civil rights advocates have been critical of that feature in other cities where the TASER camera model is used, saying it gives officers too much power to pick and choose what will be recorded.
Other cities deploying cameras following police shootings include Ferguson, Mo., where police officers began wearing cameras after Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in July.
Last year, the New York City Police Department also announced a pilot program that would see 60 officers begin wearing body cameras just months after the death of Eric Garner, although the NYPD camera policy was part of a larger settlement involving its controversial use of stop-and-frisk tactics.
And in December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced plans to buy 7,000 body-worn cameras from TASER for LAPD officers to wear, making Los Angeles the first major U.S. city to use the devices on a large scale.
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