Investigation reveals inconsistent use of police cameras in Indiana, Midwest

This story was produced in partnership with 16 News Now at WNDU, a Gray TV affiliate in South Bend, Indiana.

A routine dispatch call gained national attention after a South Bend policeman fatally shot Eric Logan, but failed to record the incident even though the officer wore a body camera and his car was equipped with a dashboard camera.

The glare of the national spotlight focused on Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his presidential aspirations. Critics said the June 16 shooting of an African-American man by a white police officer reflected on the mayor’s poor relations within the black community.

But it also shined a light on how police departments deploy body and dashboard cameras and how the video is stored.

Why Sgt. Ryan O’Neill shot Logan and why he did not turn on his body camera is part of an on-going investigation into the shooting by a Ripley County special prosecutor.

In an interview with 16 News Now’s Joshua Short, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski defended his department’s policies on the usage of body and dashboard cameras, while saying changes have been made to its camera policies.

“We are the most transparent police department not only in the state but per capita…probably in this country,” he said.

Because the shooting wasn’t recorded, some community leaders dispute the chief’s claims of transparency.

16 News Now, with its new partner the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University, decided to look into how police departments in Indiana and major cities around the Midwest operate their body and dashboard cameras.

Students at the Arnolt Center called every Indiana county and major cities in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio to gather information regarding dashboard and body camera procedures.

When calls weren’t answered, students sent emails requesting the information. Out of those calls and emails, 58 Indiana counties responded.

At least seven departments said they run their cameras continuously including West Lafayette, home to a major university like South Bend.

While South Bend was the first in Indiana to be outfitted with cameras, there are at least 23 departments in the state and in major cities in neighboring states that record every officer interaction with the public.

The dashboard cameras for instance will turn on when a police officer is speeding, and when the officer turns on their lights or sirens. But Chief Ruszkowski implemented one change following Logan’s shooting. The body cameras now activate when the police car door is open, not just manually, as would have been the case in the Logan incident.

While the chief said the department has made these changes, it can’t have the cameras on 24 hours a day, every day, because it costs too much to store the recordings. He took issue with the idea of storing 24/7 without having a way to pay for the storage cost based on the length of time video must be stored as a result of the state’s public access law. This law governs how long the police video is stored and who has access.

“We respond to roughly 100,000 calls a year for service,” Ruszkowski said. “And doing the math on that, cameras running 24/7, 365, I can’t imagine what that amount of storage, let alone other things, would be.”

The Indiana Access Law, or Indiana Code 5.14.3, is the chapter that governs access to public records. In 2016, legislators updated three sections of the code to include video coverage from dash and body cams. According to Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt, the code was amended in 2016 to clarify who can have access to the footage, how it’s saved and for how long it’s stored.

According to Britt, prior to 2016, everything was lumped into investigatory law enforcement records and the public had no right to see it.

“The tort claim period for local government is 180 days and for state government, it’s 270 days,” Britt said. “The legislator built in a state buffer as well…so it’s 190 days and 280 for the state.”

That’s how long local and state police are mandated to keep video recordings in the event someone sues over a police incident. But the problem isn’t how long they have to keep it, it’s how much it costs to store the videos.

While South Bend has $1.5 million to cover the cost of the cameras for five years, the chief said the cost of storage is too expensive because of the time period it must be saved under the access law.

Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director Stephen Key agreed the law needs to be amended, but not in a way that limits the storage requirements that the South Bend chief said is too burdensome. Instead, Key would like to see changes in the cost the public is charged to access the video.

Currently, the law said an agency can be charged actual cost fees to mirror the cost of production up to $150. Key said the agencies are charging the maximum amount of $150 instead of actual costs which he said are significantly less. This puts the burden on citizens.

If a citizen is forced to sue to get access to police video and is successful, the current law does not make police agencies pay for lawyer fees. Key said that it’s not right.

While Britt stressed the importance of the access law that covers the storage of police recordings, he is sympathetic with the cost issues raised by South Bend’s chief. But Britt said he expects costs will drop.

“It’s a real expense now (but) I think those costs are tapering as technology evolves and storage becomes more robust and available,” he said.

The students at The Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism made numerous calls to cities, not just in Indiana, but in Illinois, Michigan and even Ohio. Their goal was to learn more about their police department’s camera policies.

They created a user-friendly database with their findings, below.

Data compiled, maps made and story written by Arnolt Center interns Lauren Davis, Daniela Molina, Violet Baron, Brianna Lanham, Jackson Maddux Hicks, Michael Skiles, Alyssa White, Jaclyn Ferguson, Margot Cohen, Kyra Miller, Meg Holl, Alexandra Hardgrave, Vivek Rao, Marin Pisani and Joy Burton.