It’s a way to increase accountability and transparency between the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and the public.
That’s what Capt. Robert Mumaw said about the reintroduction of body-worn cameras among 43 deputies within the department this week.
“The deputies want to have these body cameras on,” said Mumaw. "It helps them tell the story to the public when the public questions law enforcement."
In today’s world when people are quick to use their cell phones to record incidents involving police, having deputies wear the cameras will provide more context to a situation and ensure they are giving the facts of it, Mumaw said.
The body camera recordings may not provide the full story, as there are "three sides to every coin," but they will provide another angle of what happened during an incident, Mumaw said.
“It holds us accountable for our actions and the transparency we need to show the public,” Mumaw said. "Social media can say all sorts of things."
"It's not that people are lying," Mumaw continued. "It's that people saw it from their point of view, saw it in their time frame and the body camera shows the entire story from our point of view and what we saw."
"It's a de-escalation tool that's right there on your chest," Mumaw added, saying it will also help keep civilians, who don't want to be recorded as doing anything foolish, in check during interactions.
Recognizing that people have a right to privacy in certain situations, the cameras will not be active at all times, including times when deputies are simply having a friendly chat catching up with people, Mumaw said.
The cameras are to be used only in official law enforcement business, such as traffic stops or an emergency, Mumaw said. People will be told when the camera is recording, and it has some things on it that make it pretty clear it's active, Mumaw said.
“We're not going to walk down the street just to have it on,” Mumaw said. "We don't want to trample on anybody's constitutional right at all."
The cost of the cameras was not immediately available as the Sheriff’s Office is unable to access emails after the intrusion into the county’s servers recently, Mumaw said. But the cameras were partially purchased by a grant that Maj. Jeff Driskill applied for in early 2020 soon after joining the department with Sheriff Mark Butler, Mumaw said.
Deputies were previously equipped with body-worn cameras made by a different camera company in the first half of the 2010s, but by 2018 and 2019, they started to become dated, Mumaw said.
With the new WatchGuard cameras, the Sheriff’s Office will have software designed to organize the recordings and allow deputies to watch recordings, add them to case files and send them directly to the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office as evidence in court proceedings, Mumaw said.
The cameras and software are made by the same company that the Front Royal Police Department uses for its body-worn cameras, which will help to create a streamlined process for sharing recordings, Mumaw said.
The software will log any action taken with the recordings, and no editing can be done to them, beyond clipping certain parts from public viewing that may involve sensitive information affecting a case, Mumaw said.
The seven-member command staff won't not be equipped with the cameras, but will have administrative oversight of the organization of the recordings, Mumaw said.
Because of legislation that will require increased staff at the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office to review the recordings and equipping command staff with the cameras, the department will be looking to purchase more of them in the future, Mumaw said.
A policy for the cameras has been reviewed and approved by the Bureau of Justice and the Sheriff’s Office Community Advisory Committee, which provides resident input on policing matters for the department, Mumaw said.
"I don't ever see the body camera going away," Mumaw added. "If they break, we'll replace."
Three new WatchGuard in-car cameras were also purchased for the department’s fleet of vehicles, Mumaw said.
Some cars still have the older cameras in them. As those cars are taken out of service, the cameras will be replaced with the new system, Mumaw said. About half of the agency's 24 patrol units have in-car cameras, including the new ones, Mumaw said.
The body-worn cameras are arriving as the country watches the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering George Floyd as a result of kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Bystanders and first responders captured the incident on video.
"Law enforcement is a profession, you are a professional," Mumaw said. "You have to be professional at all times, in crazy matters, and the body camera helps you keep your cool sometimes."
Continued community engagement by law enforcement must be sustained and cameras are not a cure for social injustices, a news release announcing their debut states.
"You used to talk at people. Law enforcement is getting better at talking to people," Mumaw said.