Channel 2 investigates local police departments' use of body cameras

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ATLANTA - A bill in the Georgia Legislature would require every police officer in Georgia to wear a body camera. 

Some departments already are using them and large departments like DeKalb and Atlanta are testing them now. 

After the 2014 incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, police departments nationwide started using body cameras to document crimes and protect themselves from citizen complaints.

Channel 2's Justin Farmer traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona to one of the largest manufacturers of body cameras to find out how they work.

The company, Taser International, shared video of an incident in Alburqueque, New Mexico with Farmer. On the video you can see the officer pulling over a stolen car.

The driver shot the officer in the stomach. Authorities said because the incident was caught on video, the shooter was caught quickly.

Taser International is best known for its stun guns. Still, the company began making body cameras in the last 10 years. 

Twelve hundred police agencies across the country are using the company’s cameras, including a dozen in Georgia.

"Cameras went from, well we're not really sure if police should wear them or not, to -- now everybody agrees, we just got to have the facts on what happens in these cases," said Rick Smith, CEO of Taser International.

How they work 

To protect officers' private conversations, the body cameras are always on, but without audio. 

When an officer double-clicks his recorder, the prior 30 seconds of video is recorded and the audio begins.  

Police can play back the video in the field on a smartphone to make reports more accurate. The cameras are DVR are tamper-proof.

"There is no delete button on either device, so I can't delete these videos," said Steve Tuttle with Taser International.

At the end of an officer's shift, video evidence of incidents are uploaded to secure servers. Only police or prosecutors can access the videos. 

The cameras cost a few hundred dollars, but law enforcement agencies pay a fee to Taser International to store and manage the video evidence.

Some smaller police departments in Georgia have been using body cameras for years. 

All 46 officers on the Snellville Police Department in Gwinnett County wear cameras made by Taser International competitor, Vi-View. 

Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said he bought the cameras to protect his officers from false complaints that cost taxpayers time and money.

"(The officers) are generally exonerated if they are accused of misconduct," said Whitehead.

Whithead showed Farmer video of domestic violence suspects being stunned by police Taser after they broke car windows. He said because of the video, the suspect took a plea bargain, saving taxpayers money.

"They won't go to trial when you have that kind of evidence," Whitehead added.

Body cameras catch stabbing, shooting 

Police body cameras may have prevented another Ferguson-type incident in Daytona Beach.

Taser International showed Farmer video of a domestic violence call involving former NFL player Germaine Greer. 

He was holding a knife to his girlfriend's chest. When he stabbed the woman, police shot Greer four times.

Investigators say Greer's neighbors were initially angry and claimed police shot Greer while he was sleeping. 

Officers showed them the video to prove police did nothing wrong.

"Everyone knows Ferguson, but no one knows Daytona Beach because of a police shooting," said Tuttle.

Researchers in California are studying how police body cameras change the way officers interact with the community. 

In Rialto, California, citizen complaints against police dropped 90 percent and use of force dropped by 60 percent once officers started using the cameras.

"We are already finding officers are engaging in a more cautious and risk-adverse behavior," said Justin Ready, Arizona State University professor.                  

Ready is also looking into the effect of police body cameras. He's looking at 3,700 calls involving officers wearing the devices.

Ready added that, at first, only a third of the officers wanted to use the cameras, but that quickly changed to more than 50 percent after officers started using them.

"We had many success stories where officers had animosity toward technology, but over time they saw how it would benefit them on the street," Ready said.

Researchers are finding that overall, body cameras are having a positive impact, but the public should not expect too much from the cameras in controversial situations.

"A lot of time stuff is going on off-camera that maybe isn't seen by the camera. Things that are heard are not picked up by the camera, so you can't tell 100 percent of the story," said Chandler Arizona police Officer Bill Johnson.

Ready says that even when a camera is rolling there will be controversy and pointed to the death of Eric Gardner in New York City.

"Different groups can view the same video and see different things. They frame the incident very differently based on their experiences," said Ready.