Police accountability has been a hot button issue nationally, with protests in response to civil unrest in cities like Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, Md.
In an effort to increase community trust and police accountability, on Feb 5, as part of a county wide initiative, Ashland Police will be the first department in Jackson County to equip its entire force with body worn cameras. APD’s testing of body cameras began Aug. 2014, briefly after the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo.
Ashland Police Chief Tighe O’Meara explains that APD is the first of three police organizations to equip cameras in Jackson County. Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the Medford Police Department, are both in line to equip their entire force with body worn cameras. Since APD is the smallest of the three, the plan so far is to equip APD first in order “to work out the kinks,” as Chief O’Meara put it, so the transition for the two larger organizations can go more smoothly.
Ashland City Council member Carol Voisin said that it was a unanimous decision to support APD’s new body camera policy. “I think it provides a level playing field for those who are approached by the police,” Voisin said, “everyone knows what’s happening so I think that will protect the police from unwarranted attacks as well as the citizens from misconduct.”
One can’t help but wonder the need of body cameras in Ashland, a town with a relatively low crime rate. A report by NeighborScout.com says that on average only 26 violent crimes occur in Ashland per year, these usually being domestic violence cases or drunken altercations.
A study by the ACLU found that towns that have equipped their police force with cameras have seen large improvements with police relations with the community. The study finds that three years after equipping cameras, the use of force by officers is down by 59%, the study further found that complaints of police misconduct made by citizens to be down by an astonishing 87.5%.
“This is not the end all be all to police accountability, it’s not going to answer every problem that we have.” said Chief O’Meara “there’s this big rift nationality between law enforcement and members of the community where the trust has been eroded, and this is a great step in the right direction.”
When it comes to the rules governing police use of body worn cameras Oregon State law says that officers equipped with cameras must keep their camera on at any time they interact with a civilian while enforcing the law. The rule does state however that there are very specific policies that allow officers to turn off their cameras in certain situations. Chief O’Meara explains that an officer can turn off their camera during certain sensitive situation. An example being when investigating a sexual assault case where a survivor’s privacy and comfort is a top priority. Another situation officers may turn off their camera is when a confidential or undercover informant is present, or if the officer is in a hospital or school. Chief O’Meara explains that it will be the responsibility of individual officers to articulate when a situation requires them to turn off their camera, and be able to explain why it was necessary.
The cameras themselves are produced by Taser Axon International, the same company that supplies APD with its conducted energy weapons. Running at $400 a piece, equipping the entire APD force cost roughly $15,000, this is on top of the roughly $15,000 yearly storage cost of the film captured. Outfitting APD, as well as the first year’s storage of data, will be funded by asset forfeiture money from the Medford Drug and Gang Task Force and should have little initial impact on Ashland taxpayers. After the first year is done APD will have to cover the storage and maintenance costs in its annual budget.