A valuable tool

Woodstock Police senior officer Tyrone Fields pulls a battery out of a docking station for their body cameras and batteries. Body cameras have aided the department as a technology and evidence tool for officers. Rich Cooley/Daily

The use of body cameras by the Woodstock police passed a milestone recently when the prosecution played video footage of murder defendant Nicole Dawn Miller at her sentencing hearing.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley said in a recent interview that she believed the video was a major factor in the hearing that concluded with Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp sentencing Miller to most of the 60 years in prison that Wiseley had sought.

The video showed Woodstock officer Joshua Wilberger speaking to Miller moments after he arrived at what turned out to be the scene of a crime: the first-degree murder of 20-month-old Talon Vermillion, who had been left in Miller’s care while the boy’s father was away at work.

The video also showed a later interview conducted by another Woodstock officer, M.L. Hottle, in the apartment where the child suffered his fatal injuries. Wiseley said she was struck by the casual banter between Hottle and Miller only less than two hours after the severely injured boy had been taken to the hospital.

“Little warm out there, huh?” Miller tells Hottle as he begins interviewing her while she sits on a couch holding another infant.

Wiseley described herself as shocked by the lack of any obvious distress shown by Miller on the video.

“It affected me as to how we viewed the evidence and how we were able to present it at the hearing,” Wiseley said.

Hupp also cited the video evidence in his sentencing decision: “In the video tape of the defendant after the child was rushed to the hospital, I saw no frustration or angst on her part. Despite several inquiries about Talon, she largely exhibited a callous indifference to the condition of the child while she calmly fabricated a story as to the means of injury.”

Woodstock police officials say body cameras have been a success since their introduction in 2012.

The cameras, about the size and shape of a pager, clip onto a uniform or headset to provide an audio and video record of interactions between police and the public.

Woodstock officers were wearing body cameras when a Shenandoah County sheriff’s deputy shot a knife-wielding man in July 2012. The deputy had been cut as he and the Woodstock officer tried to subdue the suspect.

Wiseley said video footage from the body camera helped her decide quickly that the shooting was justified.

Body cameras have been appearing in growing numbers of police agencies around the country since the Woodstock police began using them. The devices have gained further attention in the debate over police reforms that was ignited by the fatal shooting last year of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Woodstock police Sgt. John Fox said the cameras have proved their value in documenting interactions on the street between police and citizens.

“It’s just like anything else we carry on our belts,” Fox said of the cameras. “It’s just another tool for us that keeps us safe.”

Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about how long police choose to store video recordings. The American Civil Liberties Union gave a guarded endorsement of police cameras in an article entitled, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All.”

Jay Stanley summarized the case for body cameras in the article: “Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.”

Stanley’s article proposed several limits on the use of body cameras and their footage. For example, Stanley called for the public release of any recording to be accompanied by the consent of those appearing in the recording.

Fox said Woodstock keeps its recordings for 90 days and then purges them electronically if they are not needed for a court case.

Fox said body cameras are turned on for pedestrian and vehicular stops; incidents involving use of force; victim and witness statements; vehicle searches; serious accidents and property seizures. No recordings are made of anyone lawfully exercising First Amendment rights.

Woodstock Police Chief Eric Reiley said he was “very pleased” with the cameras.

“It’s such a valuable tool when they go on a call,” Reiley said of his officers.

The Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office began trying out body cameras after the video recording that helped clear the deputy involved in the July 2012 shooting.

Maj. Scott Proctor said “most all” deputies have been equipped with body cameras since then.

Proctor said the devices have proved “invaluable” in recording certain incidents.

“Overall, we’ve been pretty well satisfied with how they’ve performed,” Proctor said, adding that the transition has had a few bumps along the way.

“In the beginning, we had some issues with people forgetting to turn them on, but over time, it has become more habitual,” Proctor said. “Maybe one day the technology will catch up, and we won’t have to worry about that.”

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office periodically tests body cameras offered by vendors, but Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron is in no rush to make a purchasing decision. McEathron cited cost as one of the factors holding him back.

It’s a useful tool but like anything, it comes with a price,” McEathron said, adding, “If we do something like that, we’re going to do it because it will benefit the officer and the agency.”

Reiley said cameras for one commonly used brand range in price from $299 to $499. The uploading and storage of recordings by each officer during each shift can also quickly run into a lot of money.

Reiley said prices for storage range from $9.95 a month to $49 per month for each camera, depending on how much data a department generates and chooses to upload.

“The beauty of it is not one size fits all,” Reiley said of the pricing structure.

Wiseley said most cases involving body cameras aren’t as dramatic as homicides or fatal police shootings. A more common use involves viewing the behavior of suspects arrested for drunk driving.

Sometimes the cameras malfunction when an officer doesn’t have time to check their operation, but Wiseley has no doubts about their overall performance.

“When we’ve used them, they’ve been very effective,” she said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com