Recent police incidents spotlight debate over body cameras

Apr 4, 2017

Credit Max Pixel

Some police officers in northern Michigan wear body cameras; others do not. Two recent incidents in northern Michigan show why cameras can be useful. One incident was in Antrim County. The other in the City of Manistee.

A police officer was doing a blight check in a neighborhood in Manistee. The officer – who is still unnamed – stopped at 73-year-old Lee Milks' house to ask if he could look at a bus on the property.


"The guy said 'sure,'" says David Bachman, director of public safety for the City of Manistee, "and he went in his house and came back out with a rifle."

Bachman says Lee Milks told the officer to leave. The officer tried to defuse the situation. Then Milks allegedly loaded his weapon. So the officer responded.

"And shot him multiple times and the suspect went down," says Bachman.

Milks was taken to a hospital via helicopter, but he died on the way.

For the most part, people on social media were in support of the officer, offering their prayers. There were a few instances where people questioned the use of deadly force.  

Saying no or yes to body cams

Since there were no witnesses, the story is based entirely off the officer’s word. Chief Bachman says video footage from a body camera might have been helpful in this case, but his officers don’t have them. That’s because Bachman is against them. 

"I’m an old school cop," says Bachman. "I’ve been doing this since the 70’s, and my entire career my word was my bond."

He says this was true when he testified in court or wrote on a police report.

"Suddenly," he says, "the world has changed where a police officer’s word is not considered good unless it’s on video camera? I find that offensive personally."

Matthew Breed is Petoskey's director of public safety. He says when he first got a body camera as a lieutenant, he felt similarly to Bachman and didn’t like them. Over time, he changed his mind.

"Unfortunately, in today’s society, law enforcement activity is scrutinized," says Breed, "and people do not necessarily just believe the word of a law enforcement officer."

Plus, he says the videos have ended up being quite helpful in Petoskey.

"People that feel that they were treated inappropriately by a law enforcement officer, sit down and watch the video and realize that things didn’t transpire the way that they were actually remembering," says Breed.

Robert Stevenson, the executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, says this is a typical outcome. Video footage usually helps police officers more than it hurts them. He says most police chiefs in Michigan support using body cameras.

"Generally speaking the majority of the chiefs in the state of Michigan actually are in favor of body cameras," Stevenson says. "The concept of body cameras is good, and what it can provide police agencies especially is good."

Supporting them, though, doesn’t mean departments actually have them. Stevenson estimates only 10 to 15 percent of police departments in Michigan have body cameras, based on a survey of chiefs of police.

In northern Michigan, it’s mixed. Petoskey Chief Breed says law enforcement agencies in Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties got body cameras a few years ago through a grant. Manistee County has them – but not the city. Wexford County bought them about a year ago, but hasn’t put them out in the field yet. Grand Traverse County doesn’t have any cameras … not on deputies or in their cars.

"I think the bottom line is we haven’t had any real issue with our officers in dealing with the public that would prompt us to have body cameras," says Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley.

He says he’s not against them, but it’s not a top priority for the county, and it’s expensive.

Stevenson says body camera range from $500 to $700 dollars. Others estimated anywhere from $250 to $1,000.

But Stevenson says the real cost is in storing the footage that comes from the cameras. It's also expensive to pay for staff to gather and redact information from footage.

Sevenski case in Antrim County

In a case in Antrim County, video footage could settle a disagreement. It involves the Michigan State Police – who don’t wear body cameras but have in-car cameras.

On St. Patrick's Day, state troopers say they pulled 83-years-old Larry Sevenski over in a traffic stop, and allege Sevenski got out of his car and came at them.

Antrim County Prosecutor Jim Rossiter charged Sevenski with a felony for "assaulting, resisting and obstructing a police officer." The maximum sentence is two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported Sevenski says he’ll fight the charge because the troopers were the ones that actually hurt him, not the other way around. Both Sevenski’s arm and nose were broken.

Presumably in-car camera footage could help clear this discrepancy up, but the state police can’t find any footage.

"I believe this is a technology glitch," says Michigan State Police Lieutenant Mark Harris. "I know from past experience that these things do happen. It’s unfortunate when they happen in events like this."

Lieutenant Harris says they’re working with the camera manufacturer to see if a video was taken and is salvageable.

Prosecutor Rossiter says he wouldn’t mind seeing the video.

"I would rather see all evidence that is available," he says.

But he says the lack of video evidence doesn’t necessarily mean much for the case. Cases have been functioning for years without the benefit of video evidence.