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When Honolulu Police Department officers begin wearing body cameras next month, the act will signal more than a mere adoption of the latest in police technology.
It offers the department a sorely needed path toward transparency and away from its secretive, troubled past.
By mid-August, patrol officers in Waikiki, downtown and East Honolulu will begin wearing the square-shaped cameras on the front of their shirts when responding to emergencies. Over the next year, cameras made by Axon, formerly Taser International, will be distributed to all patrol officers on Oahu.
“I think this is going to give us a big boost,” HPD Chief Susan Ballard said.
It’s a quantum leap for a department that, until now, has never quite embraced the video age and has faced years of costly settlements to end officer-related lawsuits. Until this month, Hawaii was the only state without a statewide standards board for police officers; a new law requires officials to put a new board in place by July 2019.
Dashboard cameras, a patrol car staple in most urban departments since the late 1980s, never made it to Hawaii, offering residents and police officers little more than their own word against one another about what transpired during an arrest.
In 2016, the Kauai Police Department became the first in the state to purchase body cameras made by Axon. KPD Patrol Capt. Kelani Ke said the cameras have been a necessary tool for officers to protect the community while also protecting themselves from wrongful accusations.
A year ago, the Maui Police Department issued Axon cameras to their officers. Sgt. John Sang said the cameras have improved the quality of their investigations, which results in better criminal cases at trial.
“They’ve also been instrumental in exonerating officers who have had frivolous complaints made against them,” Sang said.
That argument about exonerating officers is not lost on Honolulu’s police agency, the nation’s 20th-largest police force where officers are rarely fired for misconduct and when they are, there’s very little detail made available to the public.
In 2014, Honolulu paid out $1.4 million to the family of a man who died after being cuffed and pinned to the ground by officers.
A year later, the accidental discharge of an officer’s weapon landed a bartender in the hospital with medical bills topping the $1 million mark. It was revealed in the bartender’s lawsuit that several officers tried to cover for the officer whose gun was discharged. The case against the department is ongoing.
Ballard’s own rise to power a year ago came after a federal grand jury indicted her predecessor Louis Kealoha and four other officers on corruption and abuse of power charges. His wife, Katherine Kealoha, a prosecuting attorney, was also charged. Their trials are scheduled to begin later this year.
Until now, the only equipment used by Honolulu officers that can visually record are Taser electronic stun devices. One such video helped convince a federal appeals court this month that Honolulu officers used excessive force in 2015 when arresting 38-year-old Sheldon Haleck. His death has been ruled a homicide, clearing the way for a lawsuit to proceed against the department.
In the year since Ballard took the helm of HPD, she has pushed for greater transparency.
Last month, when a mentally ill man was fatally shot by an officer following a seven-hour standoff, Ballard immediately assembled a news conference to give the department’s version of events.
When four officers were accused this year of forcing a homeless man to lick a urinal, she announced quickly that an internal investigation had begun and contacted the FBI.
While not addressing the department’s troubled history directly, Ballard acknowledged that body cameras will be good for both the officers and the community by showing exactly what happens during an arrest or confrontation.
“They’re going to need to understand they’re being recorded as well as the officer being recorded,” Ballard said. “So I think it’s good for both sides.”
HPD officers began testing the body cameras last year and the city paid $3.5 million to bring the program to Honolulu. That cost includes the 1,200 cameras, training for officers and five years of digital storage of the video on Axon’s computer servers, as well as improvements to HPD’s own computer systems so officers can quickly upload video.
The body camera program will cost another $1.5 million each year to keep it up and running.
But both Ballard and others in the department predict the cost will be well worth it, producing not only a better criminal investigation but also a way to fend off accusations against officers, which has cost taxpayers dearly.
“Body cameras tend to reduce the number of confrontations between officers and members of the public,” explained HPD Maj. Rade Vanic during a presentation last week to the Honolulu Police Commission. “So we hope that translates over here also in Honolulu.”
A reduction in confrontations, he added, will hopefully lead to a reduction in the number of HPD complaints and accompanying lawsuits.
Officers will be required to activate the camera’s recording function upon each call for service before they interact with an individual.
The cameras are actually programmed to constantly be shooting in short, 30-second bursts — but only retain the last 30 seconds before the officer hits the record button. That allows for a record of what the officer might have seen before they hit the record button.
When the camera is turned on a flashing light will signal to residents talking to police that it is turned on. Officers can turn off the light if they are in “tactical” mode, a situation where a light might reveal a pursuing officer’s position.
The video will be uploaded to Axon by the end of an officer’s shift. Once the original is uploaded to Axon, there is no way an officer can change it. Copies of the video can be edited for prosecutors or for release to the public, but the original remains untouched, Vanic said.
“The system will always keep the original,” Vanic said. “No matter what’s done to the video, the original remains pristine.”
The video will not be enhanced with any special lighting for night conditions, per federal Department of Justice recommendations.
“You want your camera to be able to see what your officers see,” Vanic said. “You don’t want it to be better than what your officer sees.”
The department’s guidelines will allow officers to turn off the video, but if they do they have to explain to their supervisors why. If a patrol officer fails to produce a video with an incident report, he or she will have to detail why in their report. Also, officers will be able to view the video as they are writing the report.
That discretion worries some.
“The devil will be in the details,” said Mateo Caballero, legal director for ACLU of Hawaii.
Caballero argues that if officers align their testimony with what the camera shows, and not their own recollection, it could unwittingly convince a jury that police officers’ testimony is to be believed over others because they have video to back up their version of events.
“It is concerning. They can model their testimony to whatever the body camera shows,” Cabellero said. “Body cameras just provide one perspective. What is in front of a camera is not the whole picture.”
Vanic acknowledges that there are two schools of thought when it comes to how officers should use body camera footage for their reports.
“One is that officers should provide testimony based on their recollection,” he said. “The other, as part of the record, (the video) it provides the officer a pure understanding of what happened.”
HPD does not view body camera video as a replacement for reports, Vanic said. “It’s a tool that is used to enhance its report.”
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