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How body cameras are changing the way law enforcement investigate crimes

RICHMOND, Va. -- In the last four years, body-worn cameras have increasingly become a standard part of a law enforcement officers’ uniform in the Commonwealth and beyond.

More than 1,400 cameras are part of Richmond area police and sheriff office inventories alone.

“Our policy is anytime a deputy is dealing with the public it has to be on,” said Louisa County Sheriff Donnie Lowe. “The way we look at it is where your feet have a right to be your eyes have a right to see, so if we are going to use that, in theory, those cameras better be on.”

The Louisa County Sheriff’s Office rolled out a dozen of the recording devices in 2014 at an annual cost of $20,000 per year.

“As a whole I find them to be very beneficial, but I was skeptical when we first got them,” said Louisa Sergeant Jeff Maddra.

“It almost seems like nowadays the perception of law enforcement has changed so drastically that an officer’s word doesn’t mean as much as it used to,” he said.

“It’s gotten to the point to where the public feels that we have to wear a camera everywhere we go to be able to back up what we are putting on paper in our reports. The flip side of that is, it’s nice to be able to put in a report basically verbatim what a person says,” he added.

Maddra says, after four years of wearing the device he wouldn’t feel complete without it.

“I would probably feel naked without it. I would probably be more leery in going out on my day to day duties without it,” Maddra said.

“It helps the deputies out,” said Sheriff Lowe. “It’s kind of a second check to make them think I got to do this right, do this by the book because I am being recorded. They are very aware of that, so that’s good.”

Whether it’s a simple traffic stop, or an armed man threatening deputies like the body cam video the Louisa Sheriff’s office exclusively shared with CBS 6, investigators say body cameras can tell the story and lead to convictions.

Sergeant Jeff Maddra

“To try to describe it properly doesn’t always do it justice but when you actually see it through the officer's eyes then that’s probably the best documentation you can actually have,” said Sheriff Lowe.

As was the case during a traffic stop in Brunswick county on April 27.

A woman went on Facebook live and said she had been, "bullied by a racist cop" during a traffic stop.  After the post went viral, Sheriff Brian Roberts gave CBS 6 the full, uninterrupted body camera footage that he said proves his deputy did nothing wrong.

“This is to protect the public and protect our agency,” said Sheriff Roberts. “This is a fine example, this entire incident was recorded on a body camera and it's all lies,” he added.

Investigators say, even something captured in its entirety isn't always good enough for a judge, jury, or the public.

Dawn Hilton-Williams

Hundreds of protesters marched  the streets of Richmond after the death of 24-year-old Marcus Peters.

The rally came after Richmond Police released the complete, unedited body cam video of the naked man threatening an officer and ignoring commands before he was ineffectively tased, and then fatally shot back on May 14th.

While the RPD maintains the video shows their officer did everything he could before shooting, Peters' family says it showed them something different.

“You know, it gave us a picture as to what happened, you know, in my brother's last moments, but it did not change our mind as you all have reported already, as police have confirmed, Marcus was clearly unarmed, he was in distress, he was in need of help,” said Peters’ sister Princess Blanding.

“It’s up to interpretation, so you’ll have some that I see this one way and I see this another way,” said Sheriff Lowe.

Major Lowe

If for some reason, the body cam video isn’t available Lowe says it can put a case in jeopardy.

“It seems like in a lot of cases if you don’t have that video it didn’t happen, so it makes it more difficult to prosecute things,” said Lowe.

“That doesn’t mean that the officer doesn’t have any credibility and that’s the big thing that bothers me I guess,” he added.

Mobile phones make recording events as they are happening simple and a potential viral post is just a click away.

It happened last month when Chesterfield Police pulled over a 19-year-old for a broken tail light.

Investigators say the cell phone video that was repeatedly shared online was misleading because it did not show the man being uncooperative before the officer is seen trying to remove him from the vehicle as police say the body-worn camera showed.

“People will take whatever video they have and post what they feel is going to establish their point and folks will run wild with that,” said Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffery Katz.

“It can’t get any more frustrating for us to see something like that happen where they just take a little clip and just show that clip and that clip can be interpreted in a million different ways,” said Sheriff Lowe. “A lot of times there is something that’s contributing to whatever that is that escalates, and you have to show that too.”

Sergeant Maddra says it does not bother him if a member of the public hits record while he is working a call.

“The way I think about it is, I’m just recording from the exact opposite perspective as they are if they do that it doesn’t really hinder me at all when trying to take care of the call,” said Sergeant Maddra.

Sheriff Lowe says that body camera footage can also protect the public if an officer does abuse their authority.

“Other times it proves the case which benefits the complainant too and it benefits us to identify wrongdoing,” said Lowe.

Lowe says a drawback of this technology within a smaller department such as his, is the personnel needed to handle distribution of videos especially when the case involves children.

“We have to go through that entire footage and blur out faces, and license plates, children voices, sometimes everything and it’s so time-consuming,” said Lowe.

But the Sheriff says it’s time he’s willing to dedicate in the name of transparency, accountability and public trust and safety.

“It takes the imagination out of it and it is what it is,” said Lowe. “You have that documented on video with that person actually speaking that and it also shows what was going on at the same time. We benefit from that, even if we do something wrong and everything goes south on us, well we still learn,” said Lowe. “We’re very upset, but we’ll take the appropriate actions to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. If the officer is doing the right thing, it’s going to show he is doing the right thing.”

Lowe says he uses his deputies’ videos for training purposes as well and he has handed down disciplinary action as a result of body-worn camera footage.

CBS 6 reached out to other area police departments and sheriff’s offices about their body worn camera programs.

The Richmond Police Department put its first cameras on the streets February 2, 2016 and added approximately 160 in that first year. They now have 400 patrol officers trained and equipped. The department spends $574,980 annually which includes the purchase of body-worn cameras, related accessories, implementation services and video storage.

Henrico County initiated its body worn camera program in 2014 and began utilizing the cameras in 2015.  They have approximately 425 cameras in their inventory. The approximate annual cost for the maintenance and licenses for the cameras is $115,000.00 per year under the current contract.

The Chesterfield County Police Department deployed body cameras in April 2017. Their inventory consists of 450 cameras, and approximately 400 are currently in deployment. All officers, sergeants, and lieutenants assigned in a uniformed patrol capacity are assigned a body camera. Officers assigned to specialty units such as canine handlers, and traffic enforcement officers are also assigned body cameras.

The cost of the program to date is $904,001.49 for payments to the vendor. A corporal has been assigned to their digital evidence technician. CPD reports the salary and benefits for that position is about $89,400 a year.

The Hanover County Sheriff’s office deployed its cameras in October 2017. They report 155 in their inventory at an annual cost of $88,000.

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