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Police may stop using body cams

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By Randy Patrick

In its haste to have its police department be among the first in the state to have body cams for its officers, Bardstown bought “a piece of junk,” Mayor John Royalty said Tuesday.

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Speaking during a meeting of the Bardstown City Council’s Safety Committee, Royalty asked the panel to recommend that police stop using the cameras until the city can buy better ones and better software. The panel did make that recommendation.

If the Police Department chooses a system offered by TASER — a company better known for its stun guns — it will cost at least $65,000 over five years.

“It’s not in the budget, so you all are going to have to find (the money) somewhere,” Royalty said, addressing the three council members on the committee.

Police Capt. McKenzie Mattingly, the acting chief, and Councilman Bill Buckman, the committee chairman, said the cameras are failing and no longer under warranty.

The cameras sometimes don’t record, the batteries fail after a few hours, time stamps default to 1973, and it’s hard to download and later find the files, Mattingly said.

The BodyCams by Pro-Vision download to a local computer not connected to the Internet. Mattingly wants a secure, cloud-based system.

Royalty told the committee he didn’t find fault with the people who work with the video system.

“It’s the cameras. It’s the system. It was a piece of junk to begin with,” he said.

Trouble in court

According to Buckman, Circuit Judge Charles Simms “threw out two cases in the past couple of weeks over the videos.” But Simms clarified Wednesday that he did not actually throw out cases. He suppressed evidence based on what the videos showed, not because of any technical problems with the cameras.

The videos were of “high quality,” the judge said.

City Attorney Tim Butler read a statement from the judge in a ruling in which he said the Bardstown Police Department “needs to establish an appropriate procedure so body cam videos do not continue to disappear.”

That was part of the record in a drug case resulting from a traffic stop.

As Butler noted, the prosecution wasn’t able to view video from the body cam prior to a suppression hearing because police said it wasn’t available, yet the defense had the video from a district court case involving a co-defendant.

In his decision, Simms wrote that the state prosecutors were “actually at a disadvantage because the prosecutor and the investigating officer were unable to view the body-cam video prior to the suppression hearing.”

“That’s a pretty embarrassing, if not legally hazardous situation to be in,” Butler said.

Jumped the gun?

Former Police Chief Rick McCubbin began the use of the body cams last summer.

Royalty said Tuesday that he supported the use of body cameras, and did so last year when “the other chief” proposed purchasing them. But in trying to be the first small police department in the state to have them, he said, “not enough research was done,” and “I think it was just like we clipped it out of a coupon book,” he said.

He made a similar statement about coupon clipping when addressing the City Council Tuesday night.

McCubbin’s recollection is different.

The former chief said his department spent a minimum of six months studying and having officers test various brands of body cameras. He had to work within the budgetary constraints imposed by the council, and got the best cameras he could for the price. Not only did he not act in haste, McCubbin said, he was frustrated by how long it took.

“We did extensive research,” McCubbin commented.

“I didn’t care if we were the first or last as long as we could protect our officers,” he said.

McCubbin admitted there were some problems with the cameras, including the batteries failing and the time stamps.

As for downloading the video, though, that was a simple process, he said.

Demand for video

Mattingly said he has one officer, Tim Simpson, who is trained to download the video, and he’s having to pay him overtime to come in and download in time to meet open records requests within the three-day window required by state law. It’s also taking an officer off the street for too long, he said.

“We’re having increased requests for body camera footage for every type of incident that police are involved in,” including traffic stops and drunken driving cases, Mattingly said.

Last year, he said, the department paid out $47,000 in overtime compensation.

“That was one of our concerns when we started this — how are we going to keep up with it?” Councilman Bobby Simpson reminded others during the committee meeting.

Butler said the video evidence is public record, and if the police are going to record it, they have to be able to produce it for whoever asks for it — including prosecutors, public defenders and the press. It’s a tremendous amount of information, he added.

The city attorney said it is not unusual for a police department to have someone assigned full-time to that task.

Also, some evidence cannot be released to the public. For example, the city has had to blur the facial images of juveniles captured on video in domestic cases, and that can take several days, he said.

Panel’s decision

Before the vote, Royalty asked for the committee’s support “to stop the cameras immediately, because I think it’s a liability at this point … .”

“It’s going to get us in trouble,” the mayor said.

He also noted that police departments are not required to have the cameras, and that the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have them and doesn’t want them.

Sheriff Ed Mattingly said the next day the laws and policies regarding use of the cameras are new, and he didn’t want his agency to be one to have to test them in court. He said he would rather other agencies be test subjects and work out issues before he gets them.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Terry Geoghegan would not comment on the matter except to say that his office did not ask the city to suspend use of the cameras.

The committee voted to recommend that the Police Department suspend the use of the cameras for at least 30 days to give its leaders time to get more information about TASER’s proposal, and that the City Council either pay for a better system or suspend the program altogether.

Councilman Francis Lydian was the only committee member who voted no.

He said during the committee meeting that he thinks the video evidence is important.

Copeland: Fix it

When Buckman reviewed the committee’s recommendation to the City Council Tuesday night, Councilwoman Kecia Copeland said she wanted the Police Department to fix the problem, because she did not want to permanently do away with the body cams.

“I hope that we can expeditiously reconcile this. I do believe that this is the right thing to do,” she said.