COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After months of deliberating, two central Ohio law enforcement agencies are preparing to furnish their personnel with body-worn cameras from different vendors.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office introduced the Motorola WatchGuard bodycams, authorized by the Franklin County Commissioners in a $2.5 million contract, to the public in May, just three months after the Columbus Division of Police demonstrated the newest version of the Axon Body 3, approved by City Council in a $19 million contract.
While the features of the bodycams provided by the vendors vary, the policies surrounding their use are largely the same, a “vitally important” similarity, Sheriff Dallas Baldwin said.
“If you encounter law enforcement and they’re wearing a body-worn camera, I think you have a right to expect that no matter who you’re encountering in law enforcement, our policies and procedures are pretty similar,” Baldwin said. “It’s only fair to you that you’re not being guided by different rules wherever you go to.”
Fatal shootings of Goodson, Hill accelerated bodycam discussion
The rollout of the new technology comes about a year and a half after bodycams, or lack thereof, failed to paint the whole picture of the events before the shooting deaths of Casey Goodson and Andre Hill, both Black men killed by law enforcement officers, in December 2020.
“We have seen the tragic loss of life as a result of actions taken by law enforcement across America and in our community,” said NAACP Columbus President Nana Watson, who served on the selection committee for the city’s body cameras.
Hill, 47, was shot and killed by former Columbus police officer Adam Coy on Dec. 22, 2020. While the two-minute lookback feature on Coy’s body camera captured video of the scene before the camera’s activation, the WatchGuard device was not equipped with audio look-back – causing uncertainty for detectives investigating the case.
Content warning: Officer body-camera footage after shooting of Andre Hill
The Axon Body 3 – an upgrade to the cameras worn by Coy and other Columbus officers – will include both audio and video in its two-minute lookback feature, according to police and Axon Enterprise.
“The advances in video camera technology are remarkable compared to the cams that were first deployed in Columbus in 2016 and have been in use ever since,” Director of Public Safety Robert Clark said. “The arrival of this next-generation technology in Columbus is a win for accountability and transparency.”
While the recording of Hill’s death lacked audio, Franklin County sheriff’s deputy Jason Meade was not wearing a bodycam when he fatally shot 23-year-old Goodson six times in the back in the Northland area on Dec. 4, 2020. Meade, who later accepted disability retirement, was coming off an assignment with the U.S. Marshals Service.
Discussions to bring body cameras to the sheriff’s office first began in November 2019, Baldwin said, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that the process launched into “high gear.”
“It’s about transparency, it’s about being accountable to the public, it’s about protecting the public, protecting our deputies, and just showing what happens,” Baldwin said. “Cameras are one tool that get us to that point.”
|Axon Body 3 (Columbus Division of Police)||Motorola Watchguard (Franklin County Sheriff’s Office)|
|Video Resolution||1080p, 720H, 720L, 480p resolution options||1080p, 720p, 480p resolution options|
|Camera to automatically record when||An officer removes a gun from its holster; deploys a cruiser’s sirens/lights; accelerates at a high speed or is involved in a collision||A deputy deploys a cruiser’s sirens/lights|
|Look-back feature (audio + video)||2 minutes||5 minutes|
|Review after-the-fact if recording not activated (video only)||Bodycam: Up to 18 hours|
In-car camera: Up to 24 hours
|24-46 hour time frame|
|Battery life||12 hours||“Well beyond” 12 hours|
|Charging time||Up to five hours||About four hours|
|Field of view||146 degrees diagonal||130 degrees horizontal; 73 degrees vertical, adjustable 15 degrees up and 20 degrees down|
|Storage||64 GB||128 GB|
|Number of microphones||Four||Two|
Columbus police to fashion Axon Body 3, trial period begins this month
Over the course of six weeks, Columbus police outfitted 30 officers with two types of cameras to determine which vendor made the final cut: Axon or Motorola WatchGuard, according to Deputy Chief Thomas Quinlan. After an initial trial period beginning in June, Quinlan said the bodycams are expected to be fully implemented by spring 2023.
Deputy Public Safety Director George Speaks said in an email that “far and away” Axon and WatchGuard knocked other bodycam vendors off the charts, adding “there is not a bad choice with either.”
“However, the City felt Axon better met the specific needs of the Division of Police at this time,” Speaks said.
Through a five-year contract, Axon Enterprise will provide the division with 2,105 bodycams – enough for every officer in the division – along with 450 in-car dash cameras, 16 interview room cameras, and 75 “flex” bodycams designed for adhering to tactical gear, like riot or SWAT uniforms, Quinlan said.
Relative to the department’s current version, the Axon Body 2, Quinlan said the newest rendition is significantly more advanced, as it automatically activates a camera’s recording in certain circumstances, reduces motion and blur, adds four additional microphones, and syncs the bodycam and dashcam views, among other improvements.
Watch: Columbus police demonstrate Axon Body 3
The Axon Body 3 provides “less chance of operator error,” Quinlan said. To deactivate the camera, he said officers must hold down a button on the camera for three seconds, leaving less room for an officer to willingly stop the camera’s recording during an interaction.
“It is very unlikely that that will occur by pure incidental contact error or mistake,” Quinlan said. “That’s an intentional act, so again, we would know if an officer is intentionally deactivating the camera – and then the director still has the ability to order that pulled back up in a recall situation.”
Not only did police themselves prefer Axon over Motorola WatchGuard, but Speaks said various city agencies who review or request bodycam footage “preferred or very strongly preferred” Axon.
The city’s prosecutor’s office, which Speaks said requests “enormous amounts of video,” favored Axon’s data management system, as it allows the prosecutor’s office to control its video database without having to rely on Columbus police to provide officers’ video footage.
“This solution will generate efficiencies throughout our Franklin County criminal justice system,” Speaks said.
Another important feature, he said, is that every Axon bodycam within 30 feet of a camera that is activated will also begin recording, providing video footage of the views and actions of surrounding officers.
Footage will be uploaded to a cloud-based technology with unlimited storage, from both internal and third-party video sources.
Sheriff’s deputies to sport Motorola WatchGuard bodycams
After requesting information from dozens of potential vendors, the sheriff’s office said it opted to suit its deputies with the Motorola WatchGuard bodycam — first during a trial period from July to September, with full implementation expected in October.
The V300 cameras — furnished with a 4K video sensor, 1080p resolution, dual microphones, and built-in WiFi and GPS — will be attached to a magnetic clip that can hold up to 90 pounds of pressure, Chief Deputy Jim Gilbert said.
“A bonus” to the bodycam, according to sheriff spokesperson Maureen Kocot, is that the camera, like those worn by Columbus police, can sync with a deputy’s in-car cameras.
“For example, if a deputy responds to a traffic crash and activates his lights and sirens, the BWC is automatically activated,” Kocot said in an email.
Watch: Deputies demonstrate Franklin County body cameras
During every interaction with a citizen, whether that be a traffic stop, altercation, or arrest, the deputy is required to click a button on the camera that will activate video recording, displayed by a red light.
“It is our intent and our hope that we have body cameras on at all times so that we can capture any incident, whether it be very minor to something very significant,” Gilbert said.
Once a deputy clocks out from work at a substation, the bodycam video footage is uploaded to, stored, and encrypted on a cloud platform with unlimited storage provided by Motorola and administered by Franklin County.
The Motorola WatchGuard bodycams will have a five-minute lookback feature.
One piece of the puzzle: ‘Body cameras aren’t a panacea’
Mark Meredith — a former police sergeant who reviewed officers’ bodycam footage and serves as an expert in police use of force at Robson Forensics in Columbus — said while he is more accustomed to using Axon as a former Chula Vista officer, Axon and Motorola are the leading vendors in the industry.
Body cameras are “invaluable” for law enforcement, Meredith said, both for community residents and the law enforcement with whom they’re interacting.
“You can go on YouTube and you could see cases of police officers doing things on body camera that are outrageous, to say the least,” Meredith said. “But you can also see officers on body camera doing things that are well within their legal limits and legal rights and are appropriate.”
But he acknowledged that cameras “aren’t a panacea,” and given their limitations, only account for one piece of the puzzle in addressing accountability and transparency within police departments.
At 6 feet 3, Meredith said he can see over most vehicles, even SUVs. But the body camera positioned on an officer’s chest eliminates his height advantage by about one foot — and its typical 180-degree view can’t always compete with a person’s extended range of vision.
“Just imagine that I’m seeing something over a vehicle and beyond the vehicle, if there’s nothing behind it,” he said. “But all my body camera is seeing is that vehicle because it doesn’t have the same height advantage that I do.”
Meredith also pointed to an officer’s inside knowledge of certain situations — implied understanding of interactions that a bodycam can’t illustrate. For instance:
“If I’m a police officer, and I see somebody who I know is a gang member, and I’ve arrested this person five times, and four of those times this person had a gun or some type of weapon,” he said. “Your body-worn camera is not going to know that; it’s not going to see — all it’s going to see is this person you stopped for whatever the reasons are.”
While Meredith said it’s unclear how effective bodycams are at preventing excessive force, he said in his personal opinion, it’s hard to believe that the camera wouldn’t be a deterrent.
“If you’re using excessive force and you’re on camera, that’s just — one, the whole thought of it is crazy to begin with, but using excessive force on camera’s even crazier — because it’s on camera,” he said.