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Meet the first U.S. police department to deploy body cameras

Long before Michael Brown's death brought attention to body cameras, a California department outfitted its officers

RIALTO, Calif. – Cpl. Gary Cunningham is an old-school cop, but he's happy using some new-school technology. Patrolling the alleys and roads in this city of 100,000, Cunningham and his colleagues pioneered the use of body cameras.

Police say the Rialto Police Department was the first in the nation to deploy the cameras on uniformed officers across the department. Cunningham was hesitant at first, saying he thought the cameras would be used to punish police instead of helping them. But it didn't take much time for him to do an about-face.

“I think it protects me more than it protects the public,” he told America Tonight.

Before implementing its program, Rialto police launched a yearlong study in 2012, deploying wearable cameras to roughly half of its 54 uniformed patrol officers at a given time. The results were remarkable. The department saw an 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents plumetted 60 percent.

“After we got the data, we kind of sat down and went, 'Wow, look at these numbers. There’s something to this,'” said Chief Tony Farrar, the program's brainchild. “I think we stepped out on a program that we thought was going to be dynamic, that we thought was really going to make a difference, and I think that we’ve proven that we’ve done that.”

Rialto wasn't the only department convinced. That department's study ginned up enormous interest in body cameras in police departments across the country. Complaints are costly, and body cameras offered the promise of better behavior on both sides of the badge. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for TASER International, one of the leading makers of body cameras, saw their sales skyrocket.

Then, there was the shooting of Michael Brown. His family members made the issue of body cameras a focal point of its outrage, which they emphasized in their short statement after a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed him. 

"Join with us in our campaign," the family wrote, "to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."

The incident brought an explosion of public support for the technology, as police departments chewed over the high up-front expense. 

"Police officers were pulling a rock up the hill," said Tuttle of TASER. "Now, since Ferguson, we've got the public pushing the rock up the hill." 

Body camera programs are already in place in major departments such as Oakland, San Diego, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Miami. Other cities making plans include New York, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Philadelphia and, according to experts, scores more. Once the Los Angeles Police Department ended its body camera test earlier this year, Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission, the civilian body that oversees the department, bypassed the city council to launch a $1.3 million pilot program to deploy more cameras.

The federal government is also considering whether to fund thousands more body cameras for police across the nation. But before cameras can be deployed in cities like these, local enforcement agencies have some thorny issues to address: How and when will cameras be used? When can they be turned off? How will officers be disciplined if they misuse them?

“The ramifications for misuse have to be consistent and have to be instant,” Soboroff said. “An officer comes in and says, ‘Oh, I just forgot to turn it on today,’ or, ‘I was too busy,’ or ‘I have a million other things going on,’ that’s going to be a big problem on that officer’s record.”

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