By Kevin Kelley
Two of the Fairview Park Police Department’s eight cruisers will soon be outfitted with dashboard cameras, thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office.
County Prosecutor Tim McGinty believes dashboard cameras, or dash cams, can be an important tool for law enforcement. His office recently awarded nearly $300,000 in grants to 14 suburban police departments to purchase such cameras. Half of a million dollars has also been set aside by the prosecutor to provide dashcams to Cleveland police.
“Prosecutor McGinty thinks dashcams will help build stronger cases – think of them as unblinking eyewitnesses – and will make both police and civilians safer,” said Joe Frolik, director of communications and public policy for the prosecutor’s office. “That’s why he wants to see every patrol car in the county equipped with dashcams and why it is our intention to continue the program.”
The dash camera system, from Texas-based WatchGuard Video, consists of three cameras: one forward-looking camera showing a 90-degree range; a second camera with a panoramic, 180-degree view; and a third aimed at arrested suspects who would be placed in the cruiser’s rear seat. Police officers will wear a wireless microphone to record audio.
Fairview Park Police Chief Erich Upperman told West Life he was impressed with the quality of video recorded by the system’s cameras, as well as the user-friendly software by which video is stored and accessed.
But Upperman warns that such video systems also have limitations. A police officer might react to some action out of the camera’s view, leaving viewers with an incomplete understanding of what happened, he said.
“It’s not like a Hollywood production,” Upperman said. “It just points in one direction.”
Police body cameras have the same limitations, the police chief said.
Relatively few arrests made by the Fairview Park Police Department are contested in court, Upperman told West Life.
“We’re going to see if it indeed helps with our prosecutions,” the police chief said.
The dashcam system may be useful in reviewing the few complaints made against his officers, complaints that an officer was rude, for example, Upperman said.
Upperman believes that technology such as dashboard and body cameras should not be considered more important than the officers out patrolling the streets. The police chief said he would not want to be forced to lay people off to pay for camera systems that may not prove all that useful.
Clips from police dashcam video have been common on television newscasts for many years, perhaps leading the public to assume such systems are standard law enforcement equipment.
Asked about that possible perception, Upperman again noted the budget constraints on his department.
“Most departments have a (shooting) range, and we haven’t had a range for 15 years,” he said.
Personnel cuts following the Great Recession, and roster changes due to a series of retirements over the past year, mean the department has seldom been at its optimum manpower level of 27 officers, Upperman said.
The department, now at 26 officers, is scheduled to be at full strength in January, he added.
Upperman also noted that his department’s two clerks will be required to process any additional records requests related to the video system.
The police department is labeling its use of the dashboard cameras as a pilot program, Upperman said, both to determine whether additional cruisers will be equipped and to waive a matching dollar requirement associated with the county grant.
In the early 1990s, Fairview Park police were among the first West Side departments to install dashcams, Upperman said. However, the company that supplied the equipment went out of business and the cameras, from which video was rarely used, were not replaced as they wore out, the police chief said.