Versailles will become the latest Central Kentucky city to test body cameras on police officers next month.
Lexington and Louisville also are expected to test body cameras soon. University of Kentucky police are finishing a trial of various models, Richmond is in the midst of a pilot project, and Berea police already use them.
Body cameras are fast becoming standard equipment in the wake of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that ended in the death of a black teenager. The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer sparked protests and a call for body cameras.
Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott said the city will start by testing the cameras on five officers.
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The officers will be issued small video-recording devices that will attach to the front of their uniforms. The cameras will be tested for about a month, and then, if there are no problems, more cameras will be purchased for other patrol officers.
"We'll get anecdotal evidence on how they're used and the unintended consequences, which I'm sure there will be some," Traugott said.
Since 2004, the Versailles department patrols and responds to calls not only within the city limits but also in Midway and the unincorporated areas of Woodford County. The city of Versailles had an estimated 2013 population of 8,949; Woodford County has a total population of more than 25,000.
Studies indicate that complaints against officers decrease when incidents are recorded, although there is not enough data to make conclusive claims.
Woodford County Attorney Alan George, who prosecutes drunken-driving cases and misdemeanors in district court, said he is glad to hear that Versailles will try the cameras.
"The eye doesn't lie, so any video eliminates issues," George said.
While the Versailles department doesn't draw many complaints from the public, "you're always going to get some," Traugott said. He expressed hope that the cameras will increase public trust.
"Having a true firsthand account of audio and video is never a bad thing," Traugott said. "You get some complaints on police, and there are two sides to every story. Now we'll have video evidence."
Local tax dollars will not pay for the Versailles cameras. Rather, asset forfeiture funds — cash that is seized from criminal operations and then redistributed to local law enforcement — will pay for them, Traugott said.
Traugott referred questions about cost, privacy concerns, data storage, open records requests and other issues to Versailles Police Chief John Wilhoit. The chief could not be reached Friday for comment.
However, Traugott said the cameras will not be issued until the policies regarding their use have been written.
"The policy is still being ironed out, so we don't want to turn them on" until that process is finished, Traugott said.
The events in Ferguson and elsewhere have increased the push for "body cams." President Obama has proposed reimbursing communities half the cost of buying cameras and storing video. That would require Congress to authorize $75 million over three years to help purchase 50,000 recording devices.
Big cities such as Washington, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia have announced pilot programs.
Lexington's police department has received a grant for body cameras for some officers, and Louisville police will start a pilot project next year in which some officers will wear them.
University of Kentucky police officers have tested and evaluated six to 10 models of cameras over the past year, long before the Ferguson shooting in August, said Chief Joe Monroe.
"We're trying to find the right fit for the officers as well as for us," Monroe said. "We've got one more to test and once we get done with that, then I think we'll be ready to make a decision and move forward with implementing them" next month.
The Richmond department is also conducting a trial of body cameras. Richmond Police Chief Larry Brock said the department deployed three cameras some months ago and another seven will soon go out into the field.
"We kind of decided that was the way law enforcement was headed in the future, so we started picking up some cameras as our budget will allow," Brock said.
Each Vievu camera costs about $800, he said. Vievu, one of two major U.S companies selling body cameras, has sold more than 40,000 to 3,900 agencies, according to Businessweek.
Brock cautioned that cameras "are not the be-all, end-all. Because you don't always get the full wide view of everything that's going on in front of you. But it is a useful tool."
The Berea department, which has 24 patrol officers, has used body cameras since 2009, said Capt. Ken Clark.
"We saw the handwriting on the wall a long time ago," Clark said. "Not only does it provide evidence for court, but it also provides some manner of protection for our officers and for our citizens.
"A lot of times when we are investigating complaints on our officers, it was sort of 'he said, she said.' Now, when we have this video footage, that takes a lot of the gray area out."
Furthermore, "it helps us keep our officers trained and keep our officers focused on the way they deal with the public."
Clark said law-enforcement agencies from all over the country have called the Berea department to ask about its experience with body cameras.
"They want to know the pros and the cons," he said.
Many police departments have been concerned about how to store countless hours video footage. Berea's system allows footage that is needed for trials to be "locked" and kept indefinitely. Other footage is automatically purged after a period of time, Clark said.
Some officers were initially resistant to wearing cameras because they felt administrators were "spying" on them, Clark said.
"So one of the things we had to do was say, 'This is not spying on you. ...If you're a bad officer, yeah, you should worry. But if you're a good officer and a bad person makes an accusation against you, it can save your butt,'" Clark said.
"We wanted to go ahead and do this because we feel we have a professional department and we have nothing to hide," Clark said. "And if we've got a bad apple, we want to uncover it and get rid of it anyway. ...I have seen more instances of our officers doing the right thing than doing the wrong thing. It's very satisfying to see that we trained these people and they're doing their ... job professionally, and I'm proud to call them one of my compadres."
Clark said having body cameras lets taxpayers know that police want "to be open and transparent with the people they serve and protect." For that reason, Clark said he would advise police departments to buy cameras.
"If they don't have body cameras, the public is going to look at them and say, 'What are you guys trying to hide?'"