Police chief speaks about body cameras

Truth file photo

Elkhart Chief of Police Chris Snyder, then a sergeant, shows one of the body cameras that the department received in 2017 to replace cameras that had failed during a 2016 fatal shooting. 

ELKHART — Could something like the unrecorded police shooting of South Bend resident Eric Logan happen in Elkhart after the department received new body cameras in 2017?

According to Elkhart Chief of Police, the answer is yes, but it shouldn’t be human error. 

Since June 16, the city of South Bend and its police department have faced criticism for its body camera policy, which allowed officers to use their discretion on whether to record engagements with the public.

Sgt. Ryan O’Neill was not recording when he fatally shot Logan, who allegedly came at the officer with a knife.

A special prosecutor has since been appointed to investigate the shooting, and Logan’s family has sued the city and O’Neill. 

In Elkhart, an officer should have the body camera on in such a situation. But it might not have helped, according to Elkhart Chief Chris Snyder.

“Body cameras aren’t going to capture everything,” said Snyder.

Technical issues happen, and sometimes the camera just isn’t facing the action, he said, criticizing the perception that body cameras, even if they are recording, would deliver clear evidence of everything that officers are involved in.

“It’s just not the case. I wish it was,” Snyder said. “And I don’t know that (a product) will ever be out there to the point where it’s cost effective for law enforcement to have that.”

Meanwhile, the department is intentional about keeping its cameras working.

“We do spot checks on them. The officers check them, supervisors check them to make sure that, you know, if we discover a problem today, let’s get it fixed so that it’s not a problem for four days,” he said.

And one officer has been designated as the go-to person if there is a camera problem, Snyder said. 

Despite the cameras’ imperfections, they’re still a great too, the chief said he believes. And if an incident such as a shooting happens and the camera isn’t on, it should be because of a technical error.

“If we get out of the car and we’re having an interaction with the public, that camera should be on,” Snyder said.

Should an officer be talking to a victim who states they would prefer the camera to be off, the officer can stop recording, according to the chief.

“We know the importance of it. We’ve seen the importance of it year after year and incident after incident, and they’re here to stay,” he said.

The Elkhart Police Department received new cameras in February 2017, after Mayor Tim Neese, R, had ordered the previous model off the streets.

On Dec. 4, 2016, Norman Gary was fatally shot by Elkhart police, but cameras didn’t capture what happened.

Two Elkhart police officers, Nathan Lanzen and Lenny Dolshenko, were involved in that shooting. One of the officers wasn’t wearing a camera because it was broken and the other officer’s camera stopped working earlier in their shift.

Gary’s sister sued the city, the department and four officers in December 2018.

When the department received its new cameras, then Chief Ed Windbigler, who is among the officers sued by Lameka Gary, said the public should be cautious of Monday morning quarterbacking, even with camera footage.

“This is new technology, within the last five years,” Windbigler said then. “Not all of the bugs have been worked out.”

Snyder, who replaced Windbigler earlier this year, agrees. 

“That’s just the nature of the beast. Sometimes you go out to the car in the morning and it doesn’t start. It’s a piece of equipment. They’re going to malfunction,” he said.

And the environment that body cameras are put through isn’t made for delicate equipment, he argued. 

Temperatures that can be extreme and change fast when officers enter and exit their vehicles mean that cameras lenses can fog over. Rain can mess with the cameras, and their placement on an officer’s chest means it’s likely to be in contact with seatbelts.

The police department has about 135 officers and 98 body cameras. Naturally, that means not every officer carries a camera.

All patrol officers are assigned cameras, Snyder said. But administrators and detectives, who engage with the public less, do not have cameras assigned to them.

“It’s not fine as it is,” said Snyder. “Obviously we want them for everybody.”

But that’s a matter of budgeting and convincing the City Council. Snyder said the department will try to get more cameras in the 2020 budget.

Cameras can be set to automatically record when officers turn out the emergency lights on their patrol car. However, that only works if an officer is driving a vehicle assigned to them, and the department has more officers that patrol cars.

Officers who do not have assigned vehicles then need to turn on their cameras manually.

Snyder said the department is also looking to budget assigned vehicles for every officer.

The chief said most officers prefer having body cameras.

“Whether it is complaint based, whether it’s just getting good, accurate information for a basic report, (body cameras) benefit law enforcement,” he said. “They downside is they are a piece of electronic equipment. They are prone to fail.”

Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter @ReadRasmus

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