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Two central Arkansas sheriff's offices are seeking to purchase body-worn cameras for deputies, joining a growing number of law enforcement agencies in the state that have bought or shown interest in the devices.

Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay said Thursday that his agency had finished testing six brands of body cameras since January 2015 and plans to buy the devices "as quickly as possible." Holladay hopes to outfit each of the agency's 140 sworn personnel with body cameras, which can be clipped onto a uniform lapel or breast pocket to record interactions with the public.

The sheriff is also considering buying body cameras for certain detention officers at the Pulaski County jail.

Holladay believes the devices can be used to improve agency transparency and accountability, a common sentiment among lawmen and civil rights groups. Demand for body cameras has increased the past few years as police killings have raised questions of officer accountability and led to civil unrest in several American cities.

"I think that the public expects transparency," Holladay said. "That goes along with enforcing the law, and I think it's important that the public understand that we are trying to work with them. And there are situations, certainly, where the body cameras have proven to be beneficial to law enforcement. And for those agencies that don't have anything to hide, that don't want to hide anything, that want to be transparent, the movement across the country is body cameras are another tool for that."

Cameras tested by the sheriff's office range in price from $399 to $812 apiece. That excludes the cost of peripheral equipment, such as charging docks and data management software.

Holladay had no cost estimate for the purchase or timeline for how soon it might happen. He said the sheriff's office may solicit bids from manufacturers, and depending on those figures, the agency could seek additional funds from the county or re-allocate existing funds.

"I'm committed to making this happen," Holladay said.

Faulkner County Sheriff Matt Rice said Thursday that his deputies had recently tested body cameras as well. He said purchasing the devices is "one of the top priorities" at the agency. The sheriff's office wants to buy body cameras for its 34 patrol deputies, if not more sworn personnel, by November.

Rice took over as sheriff Sept. 1 after Andy Shock vacated the position to join the Arkansas Parole Board.

Last month, the sheriff's office registered on BodyCameraDonations.com, a California-based service that aims to connect donors with smaller agencies seeking money for the devices. Police departments and sheriff's offices in 27 states have signed up with the free service.

The Leachville Police Department, which patrols a city of about 2,000 northeast of Jonesboro, is the only other Arkansas agency registered on the website.

The Faulkner County sheriff's office said it had yet to receive a donation through the service, and officials had shifted their focus toward obtaining government grants to cover the cost of body cameras.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year awarded more than $23 million in grants to law enforcement agencies in 32 states that were seeking to buy body cameras. The agencies ranged from small tribal police departments to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Rice estimated the cost of body cameras for the Faulkner County sheriff's office to be about $40,000.

"We're just looking at different options and where we can get the money from," he said. "We've looked at getting [body cameras] for a while now. I think it's to protect us and the citizens. Everybody's got a camera nowadays, and we should should probably be wearing one, too."

At least 37 law enforcement agencies in Arkansas have purchased body cameras in recent years, according to reports. The list includes Beebe, Blytheville, Jacksonville, Jonesboro, Mountain Home and Paragould police departments, as well as three university police departments and the Hot Spring County, St. Francis County and Union County sheriff's offices.

Mayflower police also wear the devices. One officer's body camera recorded Faulkner County deputy Eugene Watlington kicking and striking a man after a high-speed chase from Mayflower to Conway in May. The footage led the sheriff's office to fire Watlington. Prosecutors charged him with misdemeanor battery last month.

Rice said body cameras can help exonerate lawmen or expose them, and that's part of its appeal.

"It'll keep us honest," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union recommended in a 2013 study that body cameras be deployed within a "framework of strong policies" to ensure proper use, as well as an auditing system and limited video access to prevent tampering.

The study also expressed concern over officers' ability to turn off their cameras. Most body cameras are activated by pressing a button, though many models offer the option of recording in continuous cycles, typically 30 seconds long.

Since the study was published, police in Washington state, New York, Utah and New Mexico have reportedly failed to activate body cameras when required, or simply turned off the devices, during use-of-force incidents.

Holladay said the Pulaski County sheriff's office was developing guidelines on when and where deputies will be required to record. The agency has reviewed body camera use policies from agencies in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas, according to records released under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

The sheriff's office has also compiled research on the matter from the ACLU and Police Executive Research Forum.

"We just want to make sure that in the event of something happening that requires us to pull a record for review or distribution, it's there," Holladay said.

Deputies involved in the body camera tryout said those records might not provide a full picture of their activity. Several noted in evaluation forms that the cameras often sag or wobble when mounted on a uniform, leaving images out of frame or footage distorted.

Deputy Andrew Garrison, who tried out a Point Blank Enterprises-brand body camera, wrote that it felt like the camera might come loose during a foot chase or physical struggle. He also said its perspective is limited, which can be a concern for deputies who handle dogs.

"When the camera is worn on the pocket of the shirt you cannot see any of the dog," Garrison wrote. "This takes away evidence of head shots, tail flags and final alerts."

Deputy E.G. Kirkwood tested a Taser-brand body camera that can be worn on sunglasses or clipped onto a lapel. He also noted a narrow viewpoint.

"It is a good camera system, and I like the video from the [sunglasses] mount the best," Kirkwood wrote. "When I would wear it other places I would either get people from the chest/neck down ..."

Camera placement and stability can greatly affect how footage is interpreted, according to Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and former police officer. In videos produced for the New York Times, he demonstrated how loose cameras produce jerky footage that exaggerates what occurred. The sharp, sudden movements make events appear more intense -- and people more threatening -- than they actually were.

The Little Rock Police Department had its own issues with shaky footage when officers tested the devices for 50 days last spring.

"The officers had mentioned that [the cameras] may bounce around," assistant chief Alice Fulk said in July, after the tryout. "We're going to have to find a happy medium, because we don't want a situation where the officer is paying more attention to the camera than the situation ... there's going to be some videos that fall between the cracks just because of the size of the officer, the collar mounts moving around and things like that."

Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the department is still interested in purchasing body cameras. The department has been researching the devices since October 2014 and plans to present its findings to the city Board of Directors this spring.

Metro on 04/25/2016

Photo by Cary Jenkins
Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay

Print Headline: Sheriff's offices plan to buy body cameras

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