Smile when that Weston police officer rolls up in a patrol car. You’re on camera.

A contractor installed refurbished video recording systems into the two city police cars the last week of June, Weston police Sgt. Joshua Henningsen said.

A grant covered half the $6,000 cost for the cameras. The systems already have been beneficial.

Within days of installation, Henningsen responded to an eight-person brawl in the small town 22 miles northwest of Pendleton. The camera captured footage and audio of some of the fracas. That’s valuable for a jury, Henningsen said, because instead of reading sterile police reports, a jury can get a glimpse of what’s happening.

And Henningsen said the systems are shifting the conversations at traffic stops from “No, I didn’t do it” to issues of better driving habits and safety. He said that happened recently when a woman ran a stop sign while children were nearby. The driver was adamant she stopped, Henningsen said, but the video showed she drove right through.

“In her mind she legitimately believed she didn’t run the stop sign, but once you come down with the video evidence, it’s ‘Wow, the officer’s observations are correct,’” Henningsen said. “That’s a great education component.”

Those interactions add up quickly in small towns, he said, and helps to make the community safer.

The Watch Guard camera is mounted to the right of the rearview mirror; a cable connects it to the small color monitor and DVD recorder in the front of the vehicle’s ceiling. In addition to video and audio, the system tracks GPS coordinates, vehicle speed and other information. The cameras even have a reverse function to record what’s happening in the back of the police vehicle.

All of the information goes onto a DVD, and a software program allows officers to copy portions to other DVDs to give to prosecutors, for example.

The evidence the system gathers also means police spend less time in court explaining or defending actions. Henningsen said he had no doubt that increase in efficency will help the city pay for the price of the cameras.

Weston joins other local agencies, including the Pendleton Police Department, that use camera systems. Weston Councilwoman Julie Schuld said the cameras were a strategic goal of the city to better the two-man police department.

“We’re trying to reach accreditation with our police department, and in order to do that you have to have the proper tools,” she said.

But getting there takes money. In this case, she said, a $3,000 grant from the wind-farm funded Athena Weston Educational Resources Enhancement program helped pay for the cameras.

Citizen reaction to the cameras, she said, has been supportive. But, she added, most people in Weston already thought the police cars had cameras. Henningsen said media helps popularize the view that police agencies are equipped with the latest tech and gizmos, but the real world isn’t quite so up to speed.

Schuld said that’s why these cameras are an important step for the department. The city wants its officers to have the equipment that other agencies have. She said that makes the job safer for them and the citizens they help protect.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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