It’s the kind of scene typically portrayed on reality TV shows such as “Cops ” — an officer approaches a suspicious-acting person who takes off running during the initial interrogation.
Then the camera records the ensuing chase by the policeman, who becomes winded as he frantically shouts out his location to headquarters so other law enforcement personnel can converge to secure the perimeters. Finally the officer closes in and the suspect, after being threatened with tasering, goes to the ground and is handcuffed.
This drama was not part of a television program, but was a real incident occurring in Mount Airy recently — and recorded for posterity due to new technology that is providing officers a second set of eyes.
It involves the addition of 11 “body cams” to the Mount Airy Police Department. A body cam is a small video camera that an officer can use to record what he or she sees and hears during arrests or other incidents.
This occurred through an upgrade of the department’s digital video system that previously was limited in the field to recordings made from police cars — which are one-dimensional and don’t capture everything that might occur during a traffic stop or investigation.
“We thought it was time to take advantage of that technology,” Police Chief Dale Watson said of the body cams that have been around for a few years nationally.
“A lot of departments are going to this technology,” Watson added. “Up to now, it really just wasn’t cost-efficient to make the move.”
As the expense gradually declined, the local department gave a serious look to adding body cams and was able to obtain a type that is compatible with its existing video hardware and software management systems.
The units it acquired cost $990 each, with the total for the 11 body cams coming in at just under $11,000 and funded from the operations budget of the police department. “We have plans to expand on the number,” the police chief said.
Those 11 cameras now available are rotated among department members from shift to shift. “They clip right to the officer’s uniform,” Watson said of the units that attach to the mid-chest area of the shirt to allow a wide scope of surveillance.
“It’s manually activated,” the chief said in explaining how a body cam works. When an officer goes on a call or makes a traffic stop, the camera is switched on — with a green light on the device indicating that it is recording. Up to 12 hours of activity can be saved on the camera’s memory.
Once an officer’s shift is completed, the camera is turned over to that person’s supervisor who downloads the footage onto a server for storage. A officer on the street thereby is prevented from erasing material, ala the President Nixon tapes.
“Takes You There”
In replaying the recent scene involving the apprehension of the suspicious person, Watson demonstrated on Friday how effective the new technology can be in such a scenario. “It takes you there with the officer.”
One part of the recording simply shows the front of a house where the policeman has gone as part of the investigation, with two people standing outside. That view was recorded from the patrol car, and shows nothing except the residents pointing and looking at something off-camera, which is the officer’s encounter with the suspicious person.
Meanwhile, the body cam is up close and personal with the suspect. “The difference is just night and day,” Watson said of the technology that allows “a great perspective on what the officers actually see while answering calls.”
Audio from the playback includes the policeman asking the identity of the man, who gives a fake name, and the officer repeatedly telling the person to keep his hands out of his pockets and other commands. The man soon bolts and the officer is heard yelling “Stop!”
The chase lasts several minutes.
Watson said such recordings can be useful not only in court cases, but for training purposes. Additionally, they can play a key role if a citizen has a dispute with an officer, which means the actual event can be reviewed via the body cam rather than relying on he-said, she-said accounts.
“We anticipate the cameras will help cut down on false allegations against the officers and the city,” Watson mentioned.
But this is a two-way proposition.
“It does protect both parties,” the police official acknowledged regarding the recordings that are date- and time-stamped. “It protects our officers and it protects the public as well.”
Citizens gradually are catching on to the presence of the new equipment now carried by officers, which can be virtually unnoticeable, and have responded well, Watson said.
“Some folks realize it’s out there and others don’t.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.