MUNCIE, Ind. – They're used to protect you and help police, but a Call 6 Investigation found that some police body cameras have a problem during critical moments: They fall off.
Call 6 Investigates obtained body camera footage showing the devices falling to the ground when they're supposed to be capturing key moments of interaction between officers and suspects.
The issue has been such a problem that the Muncie Police Department is now making changes to its practices.
MUNCIE POLICE ARREST JESSIE VERNON
On Saturday, June 9, Muncie Police responded to an informant’s tip about a man named Jessie Vernon dealing drugs near Main and Gharkey streets.
Body cameras were recording as Muncie Police Officer Chase Hunter found a bag thrown by Vernon, allegedly with money and drugs inside.
Officer Hunter told his partner, Officer Chase Winkle, to handcuff Vernon: “Hook him up,”
Officer Winkle put the handcuffs on Jessie Vernon while he sat on the curb.
The officers’ body cameras captured Vernon getting to his feet, and then both officers struggled with Vernon before their cameras fell to the ground just seconds later.
The body camera video that recorded was mostly black as you hear Vernon yelling.
Vernon has a criminal history for dealing methamphetamine, records show.
Watch the body camera footage below. Note: The video has graphic language and materials that may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.
“Oh my God, please!” yelled Vernon. “I’m not doing nothing!”
The video showed the officers punching Vernon in an apparent attempt to control the suspect.
“Stop fighting” the officers yelled.
The body cameras were still on the ground as the sound of a stun gun can be heard as officers deployed it on the handcuffed Vernon.
“He f****** bit me,” said Officer Hunter.
More officers arrived on the scene and helped shackle Vernon’s legs and take him to the patrol car.
Five minutes after the altercation began, officers Hunter and Winkle realized their body cameras were on the ground.
“I don’t know which one is which,” one officer said.
The main goal of body cameras is to capture interactions as they unfold.
The devices typically cost between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, depending on the vendor, size of the police department and the type of service used by the agency.
Muncie Police spends $90,000 a year on body cameras.
Call 6 Investigates took our questions to Muncie Police Chief Joe Winkle.
Call 6: What was your reaction when you watched the video and saw the body cameras fall off?
Chief: It’s not the first time it’s happened.
Call 6: That’s a problem.
Chief: It can be a problem. Anytime it does happen, it puts into question how did the events really unfold? We want to see how they unfolded and we want the public to (see) if they choose to.
Call 6: Because that’s the whole point of having a body camera in the first place?
Chief: Absolutely. You’re struggling with someone and it comes off and it looks like police threw it off or it’s being covered on purpose and that’s never our intent.
Muncie Police demonstrated for Call 6 the problem with the magnetic mounts used by the officers in the video.
“It comes off that easy,” said Captain Steve Cox as he showed how the cameras can become dislodged with little force.
POLICE AGENCIES EXPERIENCE FALLING BODY CAMERAS
Call 6 Investigates did some checking and found other agencies have had the same problems with body cams becoming dislodged.
Baton Rouge police took heat for the deadly shooting of Alton Sterling in which officers’ body cameras became dislodged during the incident.
Locally, Lafayette Police have had problems with dislodging.
“During altercations with suspects the cameras have fallen off,” said Sgt. Matthew Gard with Lafayette Police in an email to RTV6. “However this is true with other equipment that officers wear on a daily basis. The issue of equipment falling off is not unique to body-worn cameras, so we do not feel that it is a fault of Axon.
The Greenwood Police Department also uses magnetic mounts.
“If the Officers get into a physical fight sometimes they get knocked off,” said Matthew Fillenwarth, Assistant Chief of Police. “I wouldn’t say we have a problem with it because it usually does not happen.”
LAWRENCE, BOONE CO AND WEST LAFAYETTE AVOID DISLODGING
To address falling body cameras, some central Indiana police departments use a different type of body camera that is fastened inside the officer’s uniform.
"This is one of the reasons why we selected the vendor we selected because of the ability to secure the camera inside the officer's uniform," said Gary Woodruff, Deputy Chief of the Lawrence Police Department.
Lawrence spends approximately $50,000 a year for their body cameras for their 44 police officers.
Boone County and West Lafayette police use a similar set up to avoid dislodging.
West Lafayette has been using body cameras since 2012, but recently made a change to prevent body cameras falling off.
“Last fall we searched for a new and more modern system and settled on Body-Worn, partly due to how secure the camera is on our officers' uniforms,” said Chief Jason Dombkowski in an email to RTV6. “The body camera is cell phone based and literally snaps into the officer's uniform vest carrier, only the lens of the camera is exposed. The rest of the camera is behind the officer's shirt or vest carrier.”
Of course, any type of body camera has its limitations.
Woodruff explained that when an officer is using a something for covers, such as during a standoff or shooting, the body camera can be come obstructed.
“There are limitations of every system,” said Woodruff. “This is not a sporting event with 8 to 12 cameras capturing the action. Every system has its attributes and every system has its drawbacks.”
MUNCIE POLICE MAKING CHANGES
Muncie Police is working with its vendor, Axon, to address falling body cameras.
They’re starting to use vests that better secure the body cameras and greatly reduce the possibility of dislodging.
“This is locked on, that’s not going to come off,” said Captain Cox as he demonstrated the new set up.
RTV6 started asking Muncie Police about the Jessica Vernon body camera video back in June.
Cox said patrol officers started using the new vests in August.
They’re not yet required, and not all officers are wearing them yet.
“We just have to figure out how to secure them without them coming off and we think we’ve figured that out,” Winkle said. “I think these vests are going to make a huge difference.”
Winkle said he is concerned the agency could miss critical moments.
“It’s absolutely part of it, so you see a video where the body camera comes off, if that would have turned into a shooting or if he had fled and got hit by a car— there are so many things that could have happened and we would want that video,” said Chief Winkle.
Call 6 Investigates contacted the vendor for Muncie’s body cameras for comment.
FULL STATEMENT FROM AXON
“Axon offers a wide range of body camera mounting options to meet our customers varying needs. Officers' requirements for mounts can vary due to body type, assignments, agency policy, and uniform types. Therefore, some of Axon’s mounts are designed for versatility such as the Flexible Magnet and Outer Wear Magnet mounts, while others are designed for higher retention force such as the Molle Mount, Z-Clip or Velcro Mount. Some agencies require a mount that can break away such as the magnet mounts so the camera does not become a handle by which a suspect can manipulate the officer during an altercation. We are continuously working to improve the options we can offer our customers as their needs can change over time, and Axon is currently working with future improvements to find solutions that meet their needs.”
“We are not seeing any high number of our body-worn cameras falling off beyond what is anticipated during altercations that can be unique, dynamic and unpredictable. With more than 225,000 body cameras in the field, the number of similar incidents have been minimal and not what is beyond expected during unpredictable confrontations.”
JESSIE VERNON CASE MOVES FORWARD
As for Jessie Vernon, he’s charged with resisting law enforcement, narcotic drug possession, methamphetamine possession and possession of a controlled substance.
His criminal case is still pending.
RTV6 attempted to contact Vernon through his attorneys and family members, but we have not heard back.
Vernon was injured during the altercation, including breaking his collarbone, likely during his initial fall to the ground, police said.
Muncie Police took Vernon to the hospital.
Tests revealed Vernon had marijuana, alcohol and methamphetamine in his system.
“He’s high on meth and he’s doing whatever he can not to go back to jail,” said Chief Winkle. “If Jessie Vernon stays on the ground and doesn’t try to get up and get away, and he’s not biting or hitting, none of those injuries would take place. Once you know he's on meth, it made a lot more sense why he acted like he did."
Winkle pointed out they arrested another suspect at the same time as Vernon, who cooperated with officers and was not injured.
“He never fled, he never tried to get away, he never resisted and of course he never got a scratch on him,” said Winkle.
An internal investigation found Officers Winkle and Hunter used an appropriate level of force during the incident.
Call 6 Investigates obtained a copy of Muncie’s use of force policy, which states officers can use force when a suspect is handcuffed if the suspect is actively resisting and can’t otherwise be reasonably controlled.
Chief Joe Winkle is the father of Office Chase Winkle, the officer who appeared in the body camera video with Jessie Vernon.
But the chief said he had no role in the internal investigation.
“I did not,” said Chief Winkle.
Winkle said the US Attorney General’s office is reviewing the body camera footage.
Attorney Stephen Wagner, who represented Jessie Vernon, filed a tort claim against the city on June 25 alleging improper and excessive force.
However, on September 25, Wagner notified Vernon he would no longer represent him.
Vernon also parted ways with attorney Jill Gonzales of Muncie, who did not return our phone calls.
Vernon is now represented by a public defender.
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