Years of debate over the merits of body cameras came to an end Thursday as Knoxville Police Department officials finished issuing the devices to all of the uniformed men and women who wear its badge.
Thanks to the combination of uniform-mounted cameras and the interlinked, upgraded in-car systems that were part of the $4.9 million project, every second of virtually every encounter between KPD officers and the public will be recorded, officials said.
“This technology will drastically improve transparency and accountability,” KPD Chief Eve Thomas said. “I feel that it will also boost the confidence citizens have in our department as it will showcase the professionalism, respect and empathy our officers display on a daily basis. This is a great thing for our department and city.”
Since the project was approved last summer, Arizona-based Axon Enterprise Inc. has provided 297 body-worn cameras (also called bodycams) and installed 333 in-car systems.
The question of whether KPD officers should be equipped with bodycams was an on-again, off-again issue for years. Although Knox County Sheriff’s office deputies wore bodycams, Knoxville City Council didn’t begin pushing for them until after a KPD officer shot and killed Channara “Philly” Pheap in August 2019.
The officer was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, but the dashcam footage shot from his police cruiser didn’t show key moments of the encounter or the shooting itself. Activists used the case to argue for more transparency and for the purchase of bodycams, which Council agreed to last year.
“This was one of the first major initiatives I announced after becoming Mayor and I am pleased to see the full roll-out of this technology,” Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said Thursday at a public unveiling of the new systems at KPD’s headquarters near downtown. “There is no doubt, these are critical tools when it comes to public safety and these new cameras will help increase accountability for our officers and the public.”
KPD spokesman Scott Erland said that obtaining all the equipment, installing it and then training the departments’s officers in only a few months’ time was a “massive undertaking.”
The new Axon in-car system “drastically improves” upon both video quality and field of view provided by KPD’s preceding dashcams. The system also includes a rear-facing camera that captures video from the back seat of cruisers and is automatically activated when the backdoor is opened, Erland explained.
The bodycams are automatically activated whenever a police officer opens the door to his or her cruiser. They also begin automatically recording anytime an officer comes into close proximity to another officer whose equipment is activated.
KPD’s old dashcams recorded not only video but also audio from microphones worn on officers’ uniforms, giving police the ability to record audio outside of the visual field of the vehicles’ cameras. Historically, officers not properly activating or turning off their recording devices had been one of the agency’s most frequent policy violations. The new system, however, may eliminate that problem altogether by taking police officers completely out of the decision-making loop.
“If it functions the way it’s intended to function, it’s all going to be automatic,” Erland said.
The camera system also uploads all footage automatically to the cloud storage system, he said. As of March 26, nearly 67,000 gigabytes of footage recorded by the system had already been stored.
Chief Thomas singled out several employees with KPD’s Tech Services Unit for the work they put into the project over the past several months.
“Police Technology Manager Julia Small, Technicians Eric Miller and Greg Whitaker and assistant Hunter Harrison put their heart and soul into this project,” she said. “It was a tremendous undertaking that was daunting to say the least. However, those four worked diligently with unwavering dedication and enthusiasm towards this project’s successful completion.”
Erland said the new equipment will not only make KPD officers more accountable but may also have the same impact on civilians. “These systems have been shown to actually reduce the number of citizens’ complaints…. There is an accountability factor for citizens, too.”
He continued: “There are no losers in this deal.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos provided by KPD.
Published on April 2, 2021