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Cop cams debut at University of Iowa

Vanessa Miller, CR Gazette –

During a voluntary search of a University of Iowa student’s dorm room in 2007, UI police officers were abruptly asked to leave. They did, and the student called the UI Public Safety Department a short time later to complain.

She accused the officers of being crooked and of planting drugs in her room. A UI official told the student that, fortunately, there was a quick way to find out. The accused officer at the time was experimenting with a body-worn video camera.

“Let’s check the video,” the staff member suggested.

“(The student) hung up,” according to UI police Officer Alton Poole. “The video cameras really clear up complaints quickly.”

Poole launched an initiative six years ago to get himself and his colleagues in the UI police force equipped with video cameras on their uniforms. He spent his own money to experiment with different systems.

Earlier this year, the public safety department got on board with Poole’s ideas and bought body-worn video cameras for its 45 police officers and 18 security personnel. The cameras, about the size of a pager, can be clipped to uniform lapels and turned on and off with just a slide of the camera lens cover.

“The video gives an unbiased view from an officer’s perspective,” Poole said.

Today, the entire UI police force is wearing the cameras, including the last of the security personnel who were outfitted with the technology this month, said David Visin, associate director of the department.

“It took some time to figure out the right system and talk to vendors about our needs,” Visin said.

Each camera costs $899, and Visin said it’s been money well spent.

“We believe they have paid for themselves in reducing court time for officers because of the great evidence they provide as well as greatly reducing administrative investigative time and cost when dealing with officer complaints,” Visin said.

VIDEO: The camera in action at Saturday’s football game (story continues below video)

Unique in East Iowa

The UI department is the only agency in the area which has all of its officers wearing uniform cameras. Most departments, including the UI police force, have video equipment installed in their squad cars with audio equipment attached to the officers for when they leave their vehicles.

Visin said the need for body-worn video cameras by UI police officers is greater than the typical municipal agency because of the number of events they handle that require officers to patrol on foot rather than with a car. Hawkeye football games, basketball games, concerts, orientation events and guest speakers — like President Barack Obama who has visited the UI twice this year — are among the events where the new camera equipment is valuable.

Benefits include providing unbiased courtroom evidence in criminal cases, which saves officers from potentially having to testify at length on the witness stand.

It also provides footage for or against officers involved in citizen complaints. And, in some cases, officers have reported citizens improving their behavior once they realize they’re being recorded.

“When people know the camera is on, we have a different kind of behavior,” Visin said.

Officers don’t have to disclose the cameras to citizens unless they ask, according to the department’s policy.

Poole said he views the equipment as a safeguard for the police and the public.

“I have more confidence going into the field now,” Poole said. “If I say this had occurred, I have something to back me up.”

Other agencies interested

Poole said he’s received numerous inquiries from other agencies, including the Iowa City Police Department, wanting to know what equipment the UI is using and how the officers like it.

“It’s something that we’re looking into trying to get, for protection for both sides, and for the evidence in court,” said Iowa City police Sgt. Denise Brotherton,

But funding is an issue, Brotherton said.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department and the Linn County Sheriff’s Office don’t have body-worn video cameras for officers, although both have camera systems in their squad cars.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said video is a great tool, and his department uses footage from its in-car camera system and from its interview rooms daily.

“It is, 99.9 percent of the time, very very helpful to us,” Pulkrabek said, adding that he would love for his officers to be equipped with body-worn cameras.

“At this time, unless we find a big pot of money somewhere, I don’t see us doing anything in the immediate future,” he said.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said so many people in today’s society are able to record with a second’s notice that it has become somewhat of an expectation among many jurors.

“The term, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ came around for a reason,” Lyness said.

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