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Watchful eye: Cameras and the South Bend Police Department

(WNDU)
Published: Nov. 12, 2019 at 4:55 PM EST
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The deadly officer-involved shooting of a South Bend man in June put police body and dashboard cameras squarely in the spotlight, here at home and around the country.

, even though

was wearing a body camera.

Since then, South Bend police say they have taken steps to make sure that doesn't happen again.

16 News Now looked at those changes and asked if more can be done to increase transparency.

"Do you often think about how different things would have been had officer O'Neill's bodycam been rolling in that officer-involved shooting?" Terry McFadden asked South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, referencing the

of 54-year-old Eric Logan by O'Neill.

"Yeah, even add onto that: I think everyone does, myself included," Ruszkowski answered.

At the request of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, just days after Logan was shot and killed,

reiterating a standing policy that says, "Officers should activate their body cameras during all work-related interactions with civilians."

"It was a reminder to all police personnel, this is the policy when engaging a member of the public?" Terry asked.

"Yes," Ruszkowski said.

Ruszkowski says why O'Neill didn’t turn on his body camera when he got out of his squad car that fateful morning is part of the

.

But he added a big change since then means it should not happen again.

"We looked at several different things," the chief said. "What could have been done to activate the camera if there was not the opportunity for the officer to activate the camera. And one of the things we looked at is that it would be activated by simply opening the car door, without the lights and sirens on, or without having to reach a certain speed or without having to manually turn it on. To be able to do that where the officer simply opens the squad car door and the camera activates."

"The body camera?" Terry clarified.

"The body camera, yes."

"Before, when an officer stepped out of a vehicle, they had to manually activate his bodycam. What you're saying now is, the door opens, bodycam comes on?

"Correct."

"And also, you're working on a system by which a gun is drawn from a holster, the bodycam activates, that was not the case before. Where are you in terms of progress with that?"

"We have about 30 of them out right now that we're testing. We are not confident with the results we've had with those. There are triggering errors. There are material errors that need to be rectified before we outfit the entire department with them."

So now, every time an officer steps out of a squad car, his or her body camera starts recording. And Ruszkowski said sometime next year, their bodycams will record if they draw their service weapon from their holster.

But most officers spend the majority of their shifts in their squad cars. So, what if a crime happens in sight of the dashboard camera and it's not recording?

After the Logan shooting, many members of the community told 16 News Now they believe the dashboard cameras should be recording the entire shift so nothing is missed.

"They are always on, and they are always looping every 30 seconds. They are triggered by incident," Ruszkowski said.

That means they continually record over the previous 30 seconds, unless they’re triggered by "lights and sirens, speed activation [or] initiated by the officer."

That was the case on Oct. 7, when a

. When the impact happened, it triggered the camera to start writing what was recording, going back 30 seconds to start recording that.

Under Indiana law, anything that is recorded by police must then be preserved for 190 days. Ruszkowski says it's a good law because it protects the public and the officers sworn to protect them.

"You'll find the vast majority, over 99% of our officers, welcome these because of the accusations that had come in many times previously; they've disproven the false accusations that have come in," Ruszkowski said.

The chief admits the current system has potential recording gaps – for instance, if an officer is incapacitated or forgets to press record.

There is also the Eric Logan call, during which O’Neill responded without lights or sirens and was moving very slowly, so his dashcam was never triggered.

Still, the looping recording system is the standard for police departments across the country. South Bend and other area departments tell us it's designed to reduce the need for excess video storage, which, they claim, can be extremely expensive.

"We respond to roughly 100,000 calls a year for service," Ruszkowski said. "And doing the math on that, cameras running 24/7, 365, I can't imagine what that amount of storage, let alone other things, would be.

And that is where 16 News Now will continue its investigation.

Right now, 16 News Now's Joshua Short is looking into this issue of storage costs and whether other police departments say they have the same constraints.