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Columbus Police Meet Goal For Equipping Officers With Body Cameras

Julio Cortez
Associated Press

The Columbus Division of Police has fully deployed all of its planned body cameras, covering 1,400 officers across the city.

In 2015, then-Columbus Council president Andrew Ginther proposed the rollout of body-worn cameras, but by the end of the 2016, only 12 officers had them. Officials then said that it would take three years to outfit all the intended officers.

The department has completed its deployment, and 1,400 of its 1,900 officers now wear the cameras. Chief Kim Jacobs says that officers are required to use them whenever interacting with community members in “enforcement actions,” like a call for service or self-intiated stop—anything that could turn "adversarial."

“They’re turning it on on practically all of their actions, minus the ones that are for public meetings and various other things," Jacobs says.

Though many community members have long called for the wider use of police body cams, Columbus Police found itself under public pressure after releasing footage containing incidents of misconduct and police-involved shootings. When a camera is turned on, it captures a retroactive soundless 60-second recording, prompting questions about police interactions before the videos are turned on.

Jacobs, though, says Columbus Police appropriately addressed such incidents. She declined to say whether the videos have shown any need for departmental change.

"We're learning that our officers aren't perfect, but we already knew that," Jacobs says. "So, to me, the responsibility lies with us doing the appropriate thing when we find out there's been a mistake."

WOSU's Clare Roth spoke with Jacobs about the body camera rollout and the department's findings so far. Below is a full transcript of their interview, edited for clarity.

Clare Roth: Thank you for joining me, Chief Jacobs.

Kim Jacobs: My pleasure.

Clare Roth: In March, officials with your department said that 1,400 of the 1,900 patrol officers in the Columbus Division of Police would have body cameras by early June. Have you reached that goal?

Kim Jacobs: Actually, we are fully fully deployed with all the cameras that were planned to be deployed right now, already.

Clare Roth: Remind us when and how these cameras are used.

Kim Jacobs: So we have a pretty comprehensive policy that was created with the help of citizen committee. Deputy director George Speaks formed the committee a couple of years ago and they started talking about what they thought would be a model policy. They looked at other policies from across the country.

They developed a plan to turn them on basically whenever officers have contact with community members in any type of an enforcement action - call for service, self-initiated stop, anything that could then turn into adversarial as well. So it's comprehensive. So they're turning it on on practically all of their interactions, minus the ones that are for public meetings and various other things.

Credit Clare Roth / WOSU
Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs at her desk.

Clare Roth: Are officers properly trained on how to use these cameras? There was some criticism in the case of Kareem Jones, whose death last year was captured on a retroactive 60-second soundless recording from a body cam. His family said the lack of sound created an ambiguity, a problem that would have been solved by officers turning on their cameras earlier.

Kim Jacobs: So I can't talk too much about that particular case. But there's definitely a certain amount of muscle memory that has to occur before anybody remembers to turn something on in a critical situation. Those officers had only been given their cameras two weeks prior to.

So I have no no issues with what happened in that particular situation. One of the officers had the presence of mind to turn his camera on immediately upon that critical incident. So to me, yes. You asked the question, "Are we properly training them?" Absolutely. They've been trained not only in the mechanics of it but in the policy of it.

Clare Roth: When Ginther originally proposed the cameras nearly three years ago, he said that they would strengthen the relationship between the police and the community. In your view, has that happened?

Kim Jacobs: Well, I think that right now a lot of people in the community want that transparency that they believe cameras bring to it. And so there are a number of people that, if they're paying attention, realize that we have nothing to hide. We're recording all of our interactions that need to be recorded.

I think there are some people that are still concerned, though, about their privacy being violated by us wearing a camera in their home and their business and various other things that we've heard from a couple of them, and we've made some adjustments, especially with regard to leaving them on in hospitals during guard duties. But I believe it's hard to measure, you know, measuring the strength of a relationship.

So it's just a matter of, 'Are we doing what we think is a best practice at this point in time?' And I have to say yes, I do.

Clare Roth: There's also been some controversy that's arisen from body cam footage. One captured an officer threatening to 'choke the life' out of a suspect. Have body cams showed you the need for change within the department at all?

Kim Jacobs: So, 'controversy' only in the sense that, you know, it came to our attention via the body camera. But we took care of it. I mean we addressed it. That's the whole point of having this type of information, is whether or not we're going to respond appropriately once we do find out something. And I believe that we have responded appropriately.

It's very difficult to have every single one of your actions critically reviewed on a regular basis. Very few professions ever have to deal with that. You know, we have to remind officers to turn it off when they go to the bathroom. So that's the kind of scrutiny that they have to deal with. So I believe that that we are learning about our officers in many ways.

I just watched a video not too long ago of an officer, single officer, that did a traffic stop at 3 a.m. in the morning. Seven young men, African-American, in one car. He made a stop, ends up calling for backup, find four guns in that car. Every single one of those young men were taken out of the car. No violence occurred, no resistance occurred.

He did it so professionally, so respectfully, he used de-escalation tactics, he used good communication skills, he used good communication skills with his his help, as well, and everything worked well. So that's the kind of information that we're learning about our own officers that will then lend an awful lot of support to how we are training already and then where we need to go.

So yes, we're learning about that. I don't expect everybody to be perfect all the time. Nobody is. And so we're learning that our officers aren't perfect, but we already knew that. So, to me, the responsibility lies with us doing the appropriate thing when we find out there's been a mistake and then trying to take that into whether or not it's a policy change or whether or not that's a training thing.

Clare Roth: Is there anything else that you feel you learned from body cameras since the rollout began?

Kim Jacobs: So, one of the things that we're continuing to learn is how far the distance is between people's perception and the actual reality. We've always known that. But now with more evidence of that, a number of people have come in or made a complaint, and they say, you know, "Officers did this and this and this and this," and then our internal affairs pulls the video and they watch it, and they're like, "I don't see any of that."

And so they show it to the citizen that made the complaint and the citizens are amazed, sometimes appalled, at their own inability to perceive the situation accurately. Some of them, though, have gone as far as saying, "Well, you must've changed the video, you must've edited the video," which is impossible for us, because they are so sure about what they perceive to have happened.

So we're finding that out and finding out that, you know, for all those years that we didn't have video, I think we were probably right most of the time when we were making our decisions about what officers conduct really was and finding out that there's still a big gap between perception and reality and that we need to continue to address that with people that have those concerns. I would rather address it. I want them to make the complaint so that we can get to the bottom of it instead of having that perception of how the incident went floating around in their mind, them talking about it without really knowing the truth.

Clare Roth: You said the rollout is complete: 1,400 of 1,900 officers have these body cameras. That's about 75 percent, give or take. How did you decide who gets them, who doesn't?

Kim Jacobs: Well, actually, the citizen committee was a very large part of that decision making. We have a number of detectives that basically sit in offices and don't do proactive police work. You know they're solving burglaries, robberies, those kinds of things, but very little of their time is spent interacting with suspects or other people in any type of enforcement situation. So we didn't think that it was appropriate to assign them a camera that's actually going to sit on a desk for a while.

They are expensive. The storage, as you know, of the video is very expensive. Probably one of the biggest costs. So we believe that deploying it to those 1,400 gives us the best opportunity to find out what's really going on in the interactions that we have with our citizens.

Clare Roth: Chief Kim Jacobs, thank you so much for talking with me today. Is there anything that you wish I'd asked?

Kim Jacobs: No, I do believe that people need to make use of these records. You know, it is, it's costly, but we're doing it for transparency. We're doing it to prove that the officers that are working here in the city of Columbus can be viewed as trustworthy, should be viewed as trustworthy, and understand some of the dangers that they face and understand some of the ways that they actually serve our community so well - compassionately, with great problem-solving skills and actually using some of the tools that people want us to have and we're already doing. The de-escalation, the communication skills. The number of people that we save from actually committing suicide.

We just had one on the Far East Side where some officers pulled somebody back from, you know, their certain death. And we've had a number of those. So if people have doubts about how we're performing, just ask, we'll show you. And, like I said, that video of that traffic stop, that could have gone so bad if officer wasn't professionally responding in the way that he's been training and used the skills and things that we've taught him to do. You know, certainly, it could have gone bad if those, and five of the seven were juveniles. It's just amazing to me that 16 year olds out at 3 o'clock in the morning with four guns in the car, with six other people. That's just trouble waiting to happen.

And I think that, for all those people that think that we have all of these interactions that don't go well, thousands of them that go very well and according to what we want them to do.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.