LIHUE, Kauai — The defendant was indignant in his complaint to the Kauai Police Department about the behavior of first one, then three officers after he was pulled over for speeding in a school zone.

The officers were discourteous and intimidating. They used foul language. One of them displayed his gun in a way the defendant found threatening. His written complaint was blistering.

Then KPD supervisors looked at the video from a camera the first officer was wearing. It told a different story. Like every street cop on Kauai now, the three officers all wore body cameras that capture audio and video of interactions between the police and the public.

The arresting officer was calm and reasonable. The defendant screamed at him that he had no right to stop him without radar. The officer patiently explained the circumstances and asked for his driver’s license. The defendant refused.

Randy Nero, a 14-year veteran of the Kauai Police Department, said his body camera is “definitely a tool.”

Allan Pararchini/Civil Beat

He was almost irrational. The initial officer asked for backup to avoid having a physical confrontation with the defendant, who was increasingly enraged. He insisted on calling the officer “brother.”

Two more officers arrived. They were calm and did not raise their voices. Together, they explained, again, that the defendant had to produce his license or face arrest — something they were obviously trying to avoid.

Eventually, they coaxed him out of his car and handcuffed him. His conduct had left them no real choice.

End of wrongful misconduct complaint. This incident, which KPD screened for a reporter on the condition that the defendant and officers would not be named, has become fairly typical for the department.

Officer Randy Nero, a 14-year veteran assigned to a patrol beat in Lihue, was not surprised at how it played out. (Correction: An earlier story incorrectly stated that Nero was a 3-year veteran.)

“It’s definitely a tool,” said Nero of the camera clipped near a button on his blue shirt. “It’s been three years now and it’s part of protocol. It’s part of our uniform.”

When KPD started using cameras in 2016, it was the first law enforcement agency in Hawaii to do so.

The Honolulu Police Department begin deploying body cameras earlier this month on 35 patrol officers working downtown, with plans for all officers to be equipped with cameras within a year. Hawaii County and Maui County police departments also now use body cameras.

One Kauai police officer said he considered his body camera to be an indispensable piece of equipment.

Allan Pararchini/Civil Beat

Nero and Acting Chief Michael Contrades said not all Kauai officers were enthusiastic early on.

“There was concern that everyone would be watching us. Supervisors would be watching us and citizens, too,” Nero said.

But after three years, they said, most officers think they are benefitting from the technology.

Contrades said he had a conversation with an officer who came to KPD from a large mainland police department that had been using body cameras for some time.

The officer told Contrades that, in addition to his weapon, there were two pieces of equipment he could not do without: his bulletproof vest and his body camera.

“He said he wouldn’t work this job without them,” Contrades said.

HPD Starts Using Body Cameras

The cameras and their support systems that store the hundreds of videos that Kauai police generate every month cost the county $125,000 a year. Its contract with the same company that makes the Taser stun gun includes periodic upgrades.

Most encounters with police are now captured on camera on Kauai. Officers have latitude to make exceptions. To interview a domestic violence victim, for example, an officer may turn the camera off to preserve the victim’s privacy.

The outcome data, so far, are consistent with the positive attitudes KPD and its officers have of the cameras. One of the benefits is that the video may make clear in one viewing what might have required several weeks of work by internal affairs investigators.

KPD’s complaint volumes are low — and dropping. In 2015, Contrades said, the department had 22 officer misconduct complaints, a number that decreased only slightly, to 20, in 2017. Contrades said he thinks it took that long for word to get out that the cops were packing cameras.

But this year so far, Contrades said, there have been just four. He said it’s evidence that many unfounded complaints just aren’t being filed.

In 2016, 21 complaints were investigated, with body cameras involved in 11. Of those, seven were resolved based on the video alone. Fast forwarding to 2018, Contrades said that officers named in the four complaints this year were exonerated in three.

Perhaps even more encouraging to Contrades and other top officers, when KPD audited 327 body camera-recorded incidents, only 14 officers were not using the equipment correctly.

Now the department is considering purchasing dashboard video cameras, Contrades said. KPD is also considering a sensor that would send an electronic signal from an officer’s holster whenever he or she draws his gun. The signal would automatically start the body camera and, if other officers responded, their cameras would be automatically turned on.

Nationally, some estimates are that 95 percent of police departments are using body cameras. While there have been controversies in big city agencies about whether the devices actually reduce unnecessary force and cultivate better police-community relations, the overall momentum seems to be toward broad acceptance.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a leading national organization of progressive police chiefs and their top-ranking deputies, has counseled caution and deliberation. In a policy paper, PERF concluded: “Once an agency travels down the road of deploying body-worn cameras, it will be difficult to reverse course.” Still, PERF concluded: “body-worn cameras have the potential to transform policing.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has taken a more cautious policy, raising concerns about potential abuses of body cameras. Nevertheless, the ACLU said it has not received a single complaint about KPD’s body camera use.

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