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All 700 St. Louis County Police Officers Will Wear Body Cameras By Early 2020

St. Louis County is about to become the largest police department in Missouri to equip all of its officers with body cameras.

“I think this is an example of how we’re forward-looking and how we try to set an example for law enforcement in the state,” Police Chief Jon Belmar said in an interview on Wednesday updating the status of the body camera plans.

The County Council approved $5 million for the cameras and unlimited data storage space on July 2. Funding for the five-year contract comes from a half-cent sales tax increase for public safety that voters approved in November 2017.

The department ran a body camera pilot program with 75 officers in 2014, just after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer. Belmar says the county had to wait for funding to expand the program. 

The delay had some advantages when it came to technology, Belmar said. The new cameras are mounted on a smartphone that an officer simply tucks under his or her shirt. Bluetooth wristwatches let officers know if the camera is on, and allow them to adjust the volume.

“Our cameras will know if there is a gunshot within the vicinity of a police officer,” he said. “They know when an officer runs, they know when an officer goes prone, so it’s an officer safety issue.”

Body cameras worn by the St. Louis County Police Department also include other technology like a Bluetooth watch control and an in-car router.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
In addition to the smartphone camera, officers will have a Bluetooth wristwatch to control the camera. An in-car router means video instantly uploads to the cloud. A sensor on a holster can turn on the camera if a gun is drawn.

The system is also constantly sending information to an in-car router, which then transmits the video to the cloud, Belmar said. That means officers no longer have to take the time during a shift to make sure the footage is uploaded.

Department policy requires officers to turn on the cameras “in the performance of, to include reasonable anticipation of, all enforcement activities,” such as traffic stops, arrests, warrant execution, or taking inventory of evidence like money or weapons.

“It’s important when we serve the public that they have this understanding of transparency,” Belmar said. “Obviously accountability is important. But one of the most important things is context. Somebody takes a 15-second video on a smartphone of an interaction between an officer and somebody else, there’s no context provided before or after that.”

He said extensive training will help ensure that officers turn on the cameras when required. 

Joe Patterson, the immediate past president of the St. Louis County Police Officers Association, said the union had been advocating for body cameras for years.

“Through our research, we have found that body-worn cameras will increase public transparency while protecting our members against false allegations,” he said. “Additionally, body-worn cameras provide better evidence in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation."

Gunshot detection system expanded

County police are also expanding the reach of a system that can detect if a gunshot has been fired.

A four-square-mile area near the intersection of Chambers and Halls Ferry roads has been covered by ShotSpotter for about two years. The additional microphones and sensors, which were turned on July 8, cover another four square miles in the Spanish Lake area. Officers are required to respond to ShotSpotter alerts unless they are already on another call, and have to look for evidence and talk to witnesses within about 100 feet of the alert.

Belmar said in 2017 that ShotSpotter would be a success if the number of calls for shots fired or shootings dropped. 

“I believe it’s been successful,” he said Wednesday. “Part of the issue that we always run into is how do you define a negative? How do you know what it would have been if you hadn’t had the technology there?” 

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.