COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Body-worn cameras soon-to-be equipped to Franklin County sheriff’s deputies were unveiled at a public forum Thursday.
At the Downtown hearing, Franklin County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff Dallas Baldwin discussed the technology behind and the policies that govern the Motorola Watchguard cameras that will be adorned — for the first time — to the uniforms of sheriff’s deputies beginning July 1, according to the sheriff’s office’s body-worn camera policy document.
The town hall meeting follows a February decision by the three-member county commission to approve a $2.5 million contract authorizing the sheriff’s office to purchase Watchguard, Inc. body cameras for each of its 565 sheriff’s deputies — 14 months after the fatal shooting of Casey Goodson, Jr. by camera-less sheriff’s deputy Jason Meade that left behind no video footage.
“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.”
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.”
While the conversations between the commissioners and the sheriff’s office were largely cordial, Commissioner John O’Grady said the process “has not always been lilacs and roses.”
“We’ve had our disagreements, we’ve had our differences, we’ve parted ways on issues on several occasions only to come back to the table and make agreements and make sure we move this issue forward for the betterment of the residents of Franklin County,” O’Grady said.
Chief Deputy Jim Gilbert said the cameras will first be deployed to the patrol bureau of the sheriff’s office, where 30 deputies will participate in a pilot program to further understand and develop the best practices for the use of the cameras.
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, Gilbert said.
Once a deputy clocks into a shift and is on duty, the camera will be on activated on standby mode, Gilbert said. 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.
Deputies are exempt from turning on their cameras in few circumstances, Baldwin said, including during undercover operations, confidential conversations — such as those with an attorney — or when the deputy is attending to personal matters, like using the restroom.
If a deputy fails to activate video recording, Baldwin said the Motorola Watchguard cameras include a brief look-back period with audio and video to allow sheriff’s office personnel to see what occurred in the few minutes prior to the camera’s activation.
Additionally, cameras are furnished with a record-after-the-fact feature that lasts almost two days, Baldwin said.
“If something occurs while that camera’s powered on but not activated, we haven’t lost anything,” he said. “We’re able to go back and recapture that on audio and video and see what transpired.”
The cameras are also equipped with a Bluetooth feature that syncs a body-worn camera to a deputy’s dash cam video. If a deputy responds to an emergency requiring them to activate their vehicle’s sirens, Gilbert said the dash cam and body-worn camera will automatically be activated.
At the end of each shift, Gilbert said sheriff’s deputies will remove their body-worn cameras and place them in a docking station that uploads the camera’s data to an unlimited cloud storage space provided by Motorola.
Dr. Jefferey P. Kee, pastor of the New Faith Baptist Church, called the public hearing on body-worn cameras a “colossal moment” for law enforcement-community relations in Franklin County, pointing to the absence of video footage illustrating what transpired in the December 2020 shooting death of Casey Goodson Jr.
“We see how important this is when we look at the playback with Andre Hill, and we see how important this is of a colossal proportion as well when we look at Jason Meade and Casey Goodson — how there’s nothing there,” Key said.
Despite the “contentious” nature of some of the agencies’ body-worn camera discussions, Board President Erica Crawley said stakeholders always came back to the table to try and restore trust between law enforcement and Franklin County residents.
“This isn’t an end-all be-all,” Crawley said. “This is one step. This is one puzzle piece to a larger portrait.”