The city plans to spend $1.6 million to equip 1,000 front-line officers with high-resolution body cameras amid a federal investigation of the Cleveland police department that was triggered by a high-speed pursuit and the fatal shooting of two unarmed civilians.
Matt Zone, chairman of the City Council's safety committee, said Friday that money for the cameras was first budgeted in June 2012 — five months before the pursuit that ended with 12 officers firing 137 rounds into a car at the end of a car chase.
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The U.S. Department of Justice announced in March 2013 that it would be investigating the police department's pursuit and use of deadly force policies. A report on the federal probe is expected to be released within the next two months, Zone said.
An oft-cited yearlong study into the use of body cameras by police in Rialto, California, showed a marked decrease in citizen complaints and use of force incidents when officers wore them. Police in Ferguson, Missouri, were equipped with body cameras after an officer shot and killed an unarmed black 18-year-old in August.
There appears to be consensus in Cleveland that body cameras are a good idea. Police union president Jeff Follmer gave a lukewarm endorsement. About 200 officers tested two brands of cameras this year, and Follmer said he heard few complaints from officers who had to wear them.
"I'm not against them, but I'm from the old school," Follmer said. "I can see where they would exonerate officers, but I don't like the baby-sitting factor."
The police department must create policies on the use of the cameras, which Zone said could present a challenge. He said he thinks police will tend to act less aggressively if they know interactions with the public are being recorded.
Councilman Zack Reed, whose ward contains some of Cleveland's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, said he has been calling for police video cameras for years.
"I think the number of incidents that have happened related to chases is pushing them to say, 'We can't wait for this any longer,'" Reed said. One of the most high-profile critics of the 2012 chase was Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who decried it as a "systemic failure." An investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation led to a Cuyahoga County grand jury indicting one officer on two felony counts of voluntary manslaughter for jumping on the hood of a cruiser and firing the last 15 of the 137 rounds through the windshield of the car.
DeWine declined to speculate whether body cameras would have saved the lives of 43-year-old Timothy Russell and 30-year-old Malissa Williams. He said although it's a local decision to buy the cameras, he thinks their use will spread.
"It would appear to me there are some significant advantages of having body cameras," DeWine said.