LOWELL, Mich. (WOOD) — In the wake of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., questions have been raised about the use of force by officers. And as police in Ferguson have clashed again and again with protesters who became violent, there have been concerns about the apparent militarization of local agencies.
24 Hour News 8 went to Lowell to see how the police department there monitors its officers, and how it takes advantage of the program that provides local law enforcement old with federal property.
CAMERAS SHED NEW LIGHT ON POLICING
After Brown was shot, a petition was started to require police departments make officers pin cameras to their uniforms to record contact with citizens.
Officers at the Lowell Police Department began doing just since last year.
Normally, a police officer’s exchange with a suspect would be his or her word against the suspect’s — but not when the officer is wearing a camera.
“The public sometimes thinks the police lie. This would correspond with the police report of the suspect’s actions.” Lowell Police Chief Steven Bukala explained. “..Our camera, that’s going to capture everything. Not someone standing there on the street corner with an agenda and a cellphone and doing self-editing, especially in a use of force situation.”
It’s one way to deal with questions of police transparency, one of the issue that has thrown Ferguson into chaos night after night since Michael Brown died on Aug. 9.
Lowell officers began wearing the cameras, purchased with drug forfeiture money, last fall. Every time they step out of their patrol vehicle, they hit the start button and record everything from traffic stops to arrests.
“The in-car video is great, but only captures that traffic stop. These will capture the entire incident up close and personal,” Bukala said.
Lowell is not the first department to use the body cameras.
In 2012, after outfitting their officers with cameras, police in Rialto, Calif. wanted to test some theories: Were suspects more likely to behave appropriately if they knew they were on camera? Would officers be less likely to break the rules if they knew their actions were being recorded by their own department?
The results of that department’s study showed officers were writing fewer use of force reports after an arrest. And there were fewer complaints against officers.
Lowell has had similar results.
Bukala said people often change their minds about filing complaints when they know both the officer’s actions and their actions have been recorded.
But if your boss asked you to record yourself at work, what would you think?
Bukala said that hasn’t been a problem in Lowell.
“Actually, in this case, the officers came to the administration and asked for these types of cameras,” Bukala said.
He admits the camera are not a panacea. There will always be situations the public won’t understand or may misinterpret — even if it’s caught on video.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the answer. But it’s a very big step in the right direction,” said Bukala, who added he has talked to other chief s in Kent County interested in the body cams.
NO ARMORED VEHICLE IN LOWELL PD GARAGE
After Brown’s death, police in Ferguson were seen in armored vehicles and carrying assault weapons as they responded to protests — some of which turned violent. The scenes, which looked like a war zone rather than a St. Louis suburb, raised questions about a federal program that provides local police departments with military surplus equipment.
You won’t find any armored vehicles in the Lowell police garage — though the department does have some military surplus equipment.
“I have an apron,” Bukala said, referring to the construction apron for officers working on projects, like building targets at the firing range. “I have first aid kits. I have things we are going to use every day as a small agency.”
The only thing with wheels is a military-issue Kawasaki motorcycle with only 30 miles on it. Currently decked out in camouflage, the bike will soon be repainted Lowell PD blue.
“We’ve not had a motorcycle here for few years,” Bukala said. “This was free. The federal government was not using it.”
Lowell PD has been taking advantage of 1033 — the number designation of the Department of Defense Excess Property Program — for a couple of years. An online catalog lists surplus equipment from armored cars to heavy-duty padlocks. It’s not all combat-style gear. Some items made available through 1033 are about as far removed from the battlefield or a street riot as it gets.
“You notice our carpeting is getting a little old,” Bukala said as he walked over a ripped seam in the well-worn carpet at Lowell PD.
Replacing the carpet would run about $12,000. But in the garage are boxes of carpet squares that sat for years in a federal government warehouse. They’ll soon cover the halls and office of Lowell PD.
“These are brand new,” Bukala said. “They’ve never been used.”
For communities like Lowell with ever-shrinking budgets, the program provides access to items taxpayers have already paid for and saves the city thousands of dollars.