'Future of law enforcement' arrives in Hannibal

Officer Jessica Sparks of the Hannibal Police Department wears one of the new video cameras that allow officers to record interactions with subjects they come in contact with during their shifts. (H-W Photo/Phil Carlson)
Posted: Apr. 5, 2013 3:31 pm Updated: Apr. 19, 2013 10:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Hannibal Police Department officers have started carrying a little extra backup.

Two weeks ago, department personnel started attaching wearable cameras to their uniforms. The tiny cameras are easily affixed to the officers' uniform and can aid them in their investigations. It's an extension of the dashboard cameras police departments have been using for years.

"This is part of the future of law enforcement," Lt. John Zerbonia said.

Hannibal Police Chief Lyndell Davis had been investigating the new technology for several months before doing a trial run with four cameras last fall. Bringing the cameras in was part of Davis' efforts to keep Hannibal on the leading edge of technology.

"Ever since I've been chief, we've really tried to embrace technology," said Davis, who has led the department since August 2006. "A lot of times in the media, you see negative video that has been shot of law enforcement. It seems that law enforcement was (against) watching them do their job. We have always taken the opposite approach."

In addition to the department's use of dashboard cameras, the Police Department's offices have surveillance inside and outside the building. Davis said the cameras can help protect officers against complaints.

"I realize that I want us to try to be a leader in some of these things," he said. "The technology appealed to me, and I think it is a further extension of what we've already done with the in-car videos and what we've done with the building surveillance.

"I felt with the type of personnel I have, that it would only enhance them doing their job and protect them when we get those complaints, when it's (the officer's) word against their word. That video is worth a million dollars. This is a way to make a lot of those complaints go away."

The cameras will also help give officers an extra set of eyes when they're at a crime scene.

"There are a lot of things that even trained officers might miss," Davis said. "If you are focused on what you're saying and making sure they are not going to hurt you, this camera is picking up other details you're not aware of. They can go back, look at the video. We think that in the future, it will aid us tremendously. You are documenting things that otherwise might be lost."

The department looked at several different cameras before settling on the lightweight version officers are using. The department ordered 38 cameras at a price of $75 each. Davis said 32 cameras have been issued to his staff, with a few extras available in case some break in the line of duty.

Some versions that the department looked at cost up to $800 each, Davis said.

"If I have an officer who breaks an $800 camera, it's going to be much harder to replace," he said. "We were impressed with the quality of the video and audio. We thought it was worthy of the investment, especially after we did the trail runs."

Each camera can store between three and four hours of video. Officers must manually turn the camera on and off via a button on the top of the unit. Officers can download video in the middle of a shift if needed to free up space. All personnel have been trained on use of the cameras over the last few weeks.

Video that is shot will be kept for 60 days, Davis said. Missouri law only requires that video to be kept for 30 days. Any video that is used in an investigation can be entered into evidence and kept forever.

Davis said the cameras will be used for training, too. Officers will look at the videos to see what they did right and wrong during their stops. When the department's Special Response Team trains, it will analyze the tape after sessions, much like an athletic team would look at game tapes after a game.

Davis said the Hannibal Fire Department, and the building codes and building inspector's offices are planning to integrate the wearable cameras into their operations, as well.

"For the little investment, I think we're going to get a good bang for our buck," Davis said.