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Cop Cams New To Most But Old School For Modesto PD

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Modesto Police Department Sergeant Gary Crawford prepares to review a video he recorded at an accident scene in downtown Modesto.

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

An increasing number of law enforcement agencies around the country are thinking about making body cameras standard issue for officers. The Modesto Police Department has been at the forefront of the technology. Officers there helped test some of the first body camera systems.

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Modesto Police Sergeant Gary Crawford typically wears his body camera on his collar. The camera is hard-wired to a recorder in his shirt pocket. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Every shift of his 19 years with the Modesto Police Department Sergeant Gary Crawford has  worn the tools of the trade on his utility belt -bulletproof vest, baton, handcuffs, radio, and sidearm. Three years ago, he added a body camera to his collar.

"The officer wears the controller normally on their (duty) belt," he says. "They can carry it in a shirt pocket like I do. So you press it twice. You hear two beeps."

On patrol, he spots the driver of a sedan who fails to pull over for an ambulance. Crawford hits the lights on the patrol car and then hits the button twice in his shirt pocket to start the cigar-sized camera on his collar.

Every time an officer makes contact with a member of the public, the camera must be turned on.

He opens the door to his patrol car and gets out.

"Hello, how ya doin' today?" he says to the driver. "The reason I pulled you over, you really didn't acknowledge the ambulance behind you until they were right on your bumper."

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The body cameras must be turned on every time a Modesto police officer makes contact with a member of the public. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Crawford runs a background check on the driver and lets him off with a warning.

"I'm sure if they were going with one of your loved ones, you'd want 'em to get their as quick as they can, right?" he asks.

The driver agrees and goes on his way. Then, Crawford logs the video of the stop on a cloud server.
 
"Every incident we go to we pull a case number on it," Crawford says.
"The case number comes up on our screen here. And then I'm gonna label that case number. Now I'm gonna go in."

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Sergeant Gary Crawford reviews video taken as he approached an accident scene in Modesto. The camera records a continuous 30-second loop. When an officer hits the record button, the video 30 seconds prior is also saved, but with no audio. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Crawford says when the department started testing body cameras four years ago, officers were evenly split on the idea. But body cameras' value soon became evident after a man ran into a metal utility box while running from officers.

"This guy runs right into it face first. Filets open the side of his face. The whole cheek is folded open and back. Head injuries bleed very good. Of course, he doesn't want to be caught by the police, though," he says. "So, he's resisting and trying to get away and the officer has to pull out a baton and baton him. There's blood flying everywhere.  A black female drives up in a car, doesn't know who this black guy is, whips out her I-phone and starts recording. So, all you see is this officer batoning this guy and blood flying everywhere. It looked...horrific."

Crawford says the leader of the local NAACP and the chief of police together reviewed the video of the entire incident as recorded by the officer's camera. Both were satisfied the suspect was responsible for his own injuries.

Crawford tells the story while pulling up to Kewin Park, where some of the city's homeless spend their day. There he finds a man sleeping under a bridge near several containers of half-eaten food.

"Hi! Sorry to wake you up," he says. "I haven't met you before. My name's Sergeant Crawford, Modesto Police Department."

The conversation is recorded.

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Sharon Coleman (r) says she was roughed up by a neighboring agency during a traffic stop. She says she wishes that agency had body cameras like Modesto Police. Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio.

Seventy-four-year-old Sharon Coleman is also at the park. She's looking for her heroin-addicted grandson to tell him his father has died. She also has a story to tell about a different police department she says detained her when she tried to drive around a DUI checkpoint.

Coleman: He said, 'Throw that cigarette out on the sidewalk.' You want me to tell you the language I used?

Bob Moffitt: No, it's going to be on radio.  So, then what happened?

Coleman: I told him (expletive deleted.)

She says she might have had more luck with her case if the officer had a worn a body camera.

"It would help! It would help," she says. "Then they'd have proof and they wouldn't call me a little old senile."

For Crawford, the cameras have been a blessing.

"When people know they're on a camera, they're a little more cooperative," he says. "They're a little nicer! Not everybody. But, most people. But, the interesting thing we found is, so are our officers. Because they're aware. So, that changes. So, what do we find? Less personnel complaints from citizens about officers, less use of force happening."

Crawford says that could be a result of better behavior from people and police.

"The person knows they're being recorded, so they're more cooperative and the officer knows they're being recorded so they use their verbal skills, what we call verbal judo," he says. "You know, your most powerful tool as a police officer is what's up here between your ears, not what equipment you have on your belt or your training. So, having the camera has many, many benefits."

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Modesto Police Sergeant Gary Crawford aims the camera that clips on the shoulder of his shirt. He can see video from the camera via a Bluetooth connection with his phone. Bob Moffitt /Capital Public Radio.

A homeless man with long gray hair named Joe sits nearby, quietly at a picnic table. He agrees the new technology should be used by law enforcement.  
 
"Everyone's gonna know if they do something wrong, it's gonna be right there," the man says. "So, it protects us and them. It's a pretty good thing."

Three of the 26 city and county law enforcement agencies between Yuba City and Turlock have established body camera systems. Nine agencies are testing them.

Taser International says its camera sales were up last year 370 percent compared to the year before. The company Vievu says it has had record sales every month since August -when an officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.