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Caught on camera

New video equipment installed in MSP cruisers

News Photo by Julie Riddle At a training at the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post on Monday, officers view video taken by troopers in other parts of the state using new video equipment being installed on all MSP squad cars.

ALPENA — Michigan State Police troopers just had a lesson in time travel.

New, top-of-the-line, windshield-mounted video cameras are being installed in MSP-Alpena Post squad cars this week. At a training session on Monday, police officers learned that, among other features, the new equipment allows them to, in a sense, turn back time.

The equipment replaces cameras that were unreliable, with video sometimes distorted, dropped, or out of sync with audio recording.

Previously, explained Sgt. Roger Hunt of the MSP Administrative Services Bureau, troopers’ in-car cameras could only provide video evidence when activated by the officer. Hunt was in Alpena to assist troopers with the transition to new equipment.

If, Hunt offered as an example, a trooper were following a suspected drunken driver for some time before deciding to activate the camera, potential evidence of erratic driving patterns would have been lost.

Now, similar to the way a DVR works, officers can reverse videotaped time, establishing an event span that captures action leading up to and following an event.

All police events are automatically and instantly uploaded to online storage any time they are within a cellular service company’s range. New, stronger antennas mounted on trooper cars help them access cellular service as reliably as possible in Northeast Michigan’s uneven service area.

The uploaded recordings are available for instant viewing by anyone with official access, even before a trooper leaves the scene of an incident, said Denise Barnes, the State Police specialist leading Monday’s training.

Previously, each trooper would bring a physical memory card to an officer at the post, who had to upload each file separately to the post’s server, a process as fraught with the possibility of human or technology error as it was time-consuming.

The Michigan State Police have the distinction of being the first state police agency in the country to use the new equipment’s cellular-uploading capability, Barnes said. Once uploaded, the original file can never be altered or deleted, although downloadable copies of portions of a recording can be sent to a prosecutor or otherwise used as evidence.

“You can’t screw it up,” Barnes told one of the officers at Monday’s training.

Camera footage, caught in vivid detail by the top-of-the-line equipment, provides immutable evidence of officers’ behavior. Data collected automatically shows exactly when squad car brakes are applied, when the siren is turned on, their speed and coordinates, and more.

“We can’t pull it back and say, ‘They can’t see that,'” said Sgt. Shane Smith of the Alpena Post. “We can’t hide anything.”

At the same time, officers are protected from accusations of violence or other unprofessional behavior during traffic stops, Smith said.

Barnes recounted stories of officers able to disprove claims against them using the cameras’ flexible abilities, from the trooper unjustly accused of smashing into a vehicle and causing serious injuries to the officer blamed for a car chase that resulted in a car crashing into a telephone pole. Video evidence, complete with voluminous metadata and accompanying charts and timelines, showed conclusively that the officer was not at fault in the incident.

The cars’ forward-facing camera offers video in standard dimensions, but panoramic recording is also available upon replay, offering an all-encompassing view of the actions of both officer and subject.

A camera inside police vehicles also films officer actions as well as those of anyone they may interview or transport in their cabin.

The equipment, which is being installed in all MPS patrol cars statewide, was funded by grants and monies acquired by MSP. In the trainings she has led, Barnes said, many officers, though frustrated by their old equipment, have been skeptical of the cameras, some of them uncomfortable knowing they would be recorded all the time.

“But the majority of them are like, ‘I’m a public servant, driving a public car on public tax dollars, wearing a public uniform,'” Barnes said. “You’ve got to rise to that standard, whether you’re videotaped or not.”

Mostly, though, officers are excited about the new equipment and the new level of transparency it offers the department.

Video evidence of their work allows them to substantiate what they say happened in their interactions with subjects and to react to accusations of tampering with videos that don’t work right because of faulty or insufficient equipment.

“Hopefully, this will dispel the image that some people have of police officers,” Barnes said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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