FOX 11 Investigates: Technology helps officers activate body cameras

A body camera worn by an Appleton police officer. FOX 11 Investigates examines new technology that triggers the cameras to record during certain situations. (Mike Moon, WLUK)

(WLUK) -- Twice in one year, Appleton police officers found themselves in life-or-death situations. But the events were not captured on their body cameras.

New technology could help make sure that doesn't happen in the future.

"They want these cameras on when they need them but they have a more important job to do," said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon.

In May 2016, police say Officer Stephanie Wiener was shot by a suspect who grabbed her gun during a confrontation. Wiener turned her body camera on after she was shot.

"That's, in my world, certainly understandable because she was attacked suddenly," Assistant Appleton Police Chief Todd Olm told FOX 11 Investigates in February 2017.

In May of this year, Lt. Jay Steinke was walking the beat on College Avenue when someone reported shots fired inside Jack's Apple Pub. Police say Steinke fired shots at the suspect. But one bullet struck and killed a bystander, Jimmie Sanders.

At a news conference two weeks after the incident, Police Chief Todd Thomas said he understands why Steinke didn't turn on his body camera.

"When you're standing outside a bar and somebody runs outside the door and says, 'there's a guy inside shooting.' Your first reaction is going to go to your firearm, your sidearm. And that's what he did. He ran to the door. It's not to try to find your body camera and try to turn it on. That could be a second or two lost," Thomas said on June 2.

Click here to read the Appleton Police Department's body camera policy.

At that same news conference, Outagamie Co. District Attorney Carrie Schneider said the body camera may not have even shown much.

"You're going to see this white shirt of this women directly in front of him is what you're really going to see or a blur of that and the other people in that doorway," Schneider said.

"Maybe, but we'll never know," said Emilio De Torre from the ACLU of Wisconsin. He says he understands why some cameras are not activated. But he says when cameras are rolling, they are very helpful.

"It is a protection certainly for the officers and it is an element of accountability to the civilians that are involved in these encounters," De Torre said.

New technology is helping to ensure that officers' body cameras are activated during emergencies.

“The officer is not there to be director of a film, his first and foremost job is to protect community members, himself, others,” Tuttle, the spokesman for Axon, said.

Tuttle says the company has developed a product called the Axon Signal which uses blue-tooth technology to automatically turn an officer's body camera on in certain situations. It also sends a signal for 30 seconds to activate the cameras on other officers nearby.

“We're doing everything to bridge that gap to help these officers turn these cameras on because they want them on but they've got other more important things to do. So, let's leverage that technology and let it do it for them,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle says the Signal can work in three ways: in a squad car, it can be set to turn on a body camera when the officer turns on the squad car lights or opens the door; the signal can be connected to a Taser, or to an officer's holster.

“As soon as the weapon is drawn, that tells the Bluetooth to turn on and to tell all those Axon cameras within the 30 feet area for 30 seconds to turn on,” Tuttle said.

While the holster technology isn't on the market just yet, the Taser and squad car pieces are being used.

The Wausau Police Department outfitted every one of its marked squad cars with the Axon Signal last year.

Capt. Todd Baeten says if an officer activates the flashing lights, the body cameras turns on.

“If there's one less thing that those officers have to worry about in this case, activating a body camera before they make a life and death decision. Boy, if we can kind of eliminate that and allow them to really focus on their mission to protect the community, we think that's a positive,” Baeten said.

FOX 11 Investigates found that the Appleton Police Department is planning to test the technology.

“We're going to see how it works,” said Lt. Gary Lewis.

He says the department has ordered two Axon Signals for squad cars. But he says the move is not a direct response to the two high-profile incidents that weren't caught on camera.

“I would say those incidents just happened to fall in to line with the technology starting to get there. They definitely highlight why it would be important for us to try to institute this type of technology,” Lewis said.

Body camera advocates welcome the technology.

“This could be extremely significant. It certainly sounds like a step in the right direction,” De Torre from the ACLU said.

“I would love to see the police have a mechanism where it's not in their discretion to turn it on or off,” said Tory Lowe of Milwaukee. Lowe is an advocate for the family of Jimmie Sanders, the bystander shot in Appleton.

“If they can find a way to get these body cameras working automatically to where we can actually get the full story from beginning to end, that will be a blessing to our community,” Lowe said.

Axon says the blue-tooth attachment for a Taser runs $89. The unit for a squad car costs $270. Axon does not have a price listed yet for the holster attachment. That is expected to hit the market later this year.

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