UCF PD among 1st in Central Fla. to adopt body cameras

At 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 9, police officer Darren Wilson encounters two men — Dorian Johnson and Michael Brown — walking toward him. By 12:04 a.m., Brown is dead.

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At 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 9, police officer Darren Wilson encounters two men — Dorian Johnson and Michael Brown — walking toward him. By 12:04 a.m., Brown is dead.

What transpired during those three minutes in Ferguson, Missouri, will never be fully known to anyone aside from Wilson and Johnson.

About a month prior, a bystander in New York recorded on his cellphone as NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo clasped Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold.

The number of people who witnessed these deaths — whether in person or on YouTube — differs by a factor of about a million, but the verdicts for the officers involved are a matching set: not guilty.

With neither of the aforementioned officers wearing body cameras, a hole exists where truth is absent. USF associate criminology professor Wesley Jennings says, "It's something that's been missing all the time."

Both the Ferguson Police Department and NYPD have since equipped their officers with cameras. And they're not the only ones.

In fact, body cameras have been a part of the uniform for UCF Police officers for the past four years. At a university where you won't find any police car cameras, you will find 18 officers equipped with body cameras — a big leap from the five it started out with four years ago.

"Law enforcement wants to be transparent, and the cameras give us the tools to really show that we are transparent," said UCF Police Chief Richard Beary, who said the department saw a real change in suspects' behavior where drugs and alcohol were involved. However, the main crime the cameras have an effect on is assault against officers.

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The UCF Police Department has employed the use of body cameras on its officers in the field for nearly four years. Bernard Wilchusky, Central Florida Future

Body-worn cameras, as opposed to those fastened to cars, are more practical, Beary said, because UCF's officers are usually on foot or inside a student apartment complex.

A long way from the streets of Ferguson, body cameras have proven essential right here on the UCF campus. In 2013, UCF police stormed the Tower 1 residence hall after a student's plan to murder its residents failed. Weapons in hand, the officers were also armed with body cameras.

The footage, which appeared on national news stations only 10 minutes after being released, allowed the public to see exactly what happened during those terrifying moments.

Some may also remember the video of UCF police officer Timothy Isaac breaking former student Victoria King's window. The 15 seconds that went viral on YouTube had some students up in arms over the officer's actions, but the full 30-minute recording released by UCF News and Information reveals the student's resistance to comply. In the end, King was found guilty of resisting arrest.

"That particular officer will never go out to work without a camera, I can assure you of that," Beary said of the incident.

The harm these types of biased videos can spread is hard to undo, Beary said.

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"There's a lot of video being shot out there. The segments that people post aren't always the truth," he said. "Clearly, a lot of people are trying to undermine law enforcement's credibility."

But while many citizens all over the country are pushing for police to adopt body cameras, what they may not realize is that the technology comes at a steep price.

When UCF PD first began introducing cameras to its officers, the units cost about $1,500. Despite severe price cuts, the cameras still make a big dent in a department's budget at about $400 per unit. Costs to store and maintain the equipment, as well as hire personnel to manage the footage, also come into play.

"I don't fault some of the agencies for waiting. If I was the head of an agency with 1,500 employees, it wouldn't have been my priority 5 or 6 years ago," Beary said.

Despite the costs, Central Florida law enforcement agencies are quickly picking up on the latest trend in police uniform fashion.

The Orlando Police Department has nearly wrapped a year-long study with the University of South Florida to analyze the implications of police body cameras.

The study began last February with 100 randomly chosen officers selected to participate; 50 were equipped with cameras and 50 were not, said OPD Sgt. Wanda Ford in an email.

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UCF Police officer Greg Larkin demonstrates how to use Taser's AXON body-camera system. Bernard Wilchusky, Central Florida Future

Jennings, the lead investigator for the study, said OPD officers have embraced body cameras as a way to show what really transpires during an altercation.

"Historically, the only video evidence that usually exists on any encounter or altercation is generally a biased, probably, recording from some bystander or some friend or somebody with their cellphone," Jennings explained. "So they only catch the 10- or 15- second clip from their perspective after, let's say, the officer is on top of this person and has put them in custody or trying to hold them down, so it looks like it's very bad.

"[Officers] keep saying, 'Well you didn't see the the five minutes before that.' They're looking forward to the idea of having their side of the story, not only their side of the story, just the whole story."

With more than 70 percent of OPD officers supportive of wearing the cameras — a percentage Wesley said may come as a surprise to those who assume police are against such advancements — USF will collaborate with the Tampa Police Department next.

Central Florida agencies such as the Oviedo and Winter Springs police departments, as well as the Orange County Sheriff's Office, are also working to acquire body cameras.

"This is where the movement's going," Wesley said. "I easily see within five years that all agencies will have these, all law enforcement agencies.

"It'll be a normal part of the uniform."

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Caroline Glenn is the News Editor at the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @byCarolineGlenn or email her at CarolineG@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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