All uniformed Cornell University Police officers are now wearing body cameras after a successful officer-led push to implement use of the audio and video recording devices.
The officers hope the implementation of these cameras will increase student trust, provide an objective record for court proceedings and aid police in writing accurate reports.
The department began looking into purchasing body cameras in 2012, when the cost of both the physical devices and data storage began to drop significantly, Chief Kathy Zoner told The Sun.
“It became apparent that we wanted another level of accountability, both for ourselves and for the community that we serve, and body cams were really starting to take off,” Zoner said.
“The officers actually were the impetus,” she added. “It wasn’t management that asked for these, it was the officers.”
Zoner and Deputy Chief David Honan said officers have been instructed to turn on their cameras — part of TASER’s Axon brand — for every service call, and only turn them off when the call ends, during private conferences with other officers or when interacting with a victim during a sensitive situation.
The review process is also monitored closely. Officers are free to watch their own videos to help write reports, review and critique their actions or aid in their own testimony, but other officers and even Zoner are not permitted to view other officers’ recordings without requesting them from the secure data storage company.
There is also an electronic log of everyone who has viewed each video, including when and how many times it was viewed, which helps to ensure privacy, Zoner said.
Not only do the cameras keep officers accountable, Honan said, they also protect Cornell Police officers as well. Body cameras can cut down on false claims of abuse and diffuse tensions because people tend to behave less erratically when they know their actions are being recorded.
Some officers wore the body cameras during winter break to get into the habit of turning them on and off and learning the controls, and all officers began wearing the cameras on Jan. 16. While investigators — who wear plain clothes — are not part of the body camera program, every uniformed officer wears the cameras while on duty, Zoner said.
“The officers feel protected [and] the public should be reassured that we can review any concerns about the level of service that we provide to the community,” Honan said.
The cameras provide video at the same level of resolution as the human eye and are calibrated to record a field of view that is roughly equivalent to the peripheral vision of humans, showing the officer’s perspective.
The cameras also save a 30-second video clip leading up to the moment an officer begins recording, which Zoner said is usually enough time for the camera to catch everything if officers suddenly find themselves in an unexpected or potentially hostile situation.
Zoner said her officers have expressed a “tremendous amount of relief” since the cameras were implemented. Although it takes time to get used to the new devices, most officers are beginning to feel comfortable with using the cameras that are attached to the chest of their uniforms, she added.
Cornell leadership identified funding for the cameras from sources outside of the department itself, Zoner said, adding that the cost of storage and cameras was significant, although she declined to name the exact price.
“Accountability goes both ways,” Zoner said of the program. “It’s both on the officer and the public.”