Since Gallatin police began wearing body cameras in May 2015, the public has gotten to witness first-hand footage from the sometimes life and death situations officers can find themselves in within a matter of seconds.
Dramatic video from four cases - a fatal officer-involved shooting of a woman wielding an ax, officers responding to a gunman demanding drugs at Sumner Regional Medical Center, the in-custody death of a man who shot himself with a concealed gun in the back of a patrol car and an officer who shot at a Rottweiler as it ran towards him - have been viewed a combined 2.65 million times on The Gallatin News' Facebook page.
"We have said from the beginning that it was about transparency, it was about community trust and that goes both ways as far as officer behavior or conduct," Gallatin Police Chief Don Bandy said about the department's decision to use body cameras. "It kind of keeps us in check, but it also helps citizens realize that we're not perfect, but (that they) have a responsibility to demonstrate the appropriate behavior as well."
While most of the videos released have shown police acting appropriately, that isn't always the case.
Footage released last week by the department from the in-custody death of Wendell Wilson in May revealed the 27-year-old was not handcuffed properly and a .22-caliber handgun was not found in his coat pocket during the search. Wilson eventually was able to slip out of the cuffs, get the gun and shoot himself in the back of a patrol car as it pulled into the Sumner County Jail. The officer was suspended four days without pay and has since undergone additional training as a result of the policy violations.
"Obviously that night could have gone a totally different way," Bandy said about the video. "At the end of the day, this shows the ugly side of it, but... we have it to show."
Sumner County District Attorney Ray Whitley said last week that while he would not tell a law enforcement agency it should purchase body cameras, it "would be good if they can afford them."
Gallatin Police spent approximately $61,000 from drug fund money to purchase 101 body cameras for its officers, according to information from the department.
"Any time you can get an event recorded on video it is all the better because you can tell exactly what did happen," Whitley said. "From that standpoint, it's really good to have body cameras, but it's also a logistical and administrative nightmare as far as handling all of the video, how you store them, how you produce them, what is relevant and what is not and it's complicated as far as privacy is concerned."
Hendersonville police do not use body cameras, but the department was able to capture an officer-involved shooting of Steven Dodd on a patrol car's dashboard camera in August 2015. In the footage, the 22-year-old can be seen pointing what was later identified as a pellet gun at officers while standing on the Indian Lake overpass. Dodd was eventually shot in the leg, which caused him to fall over the bridge onto Vietnam Veterans Boulevard. He was transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government does not have a position on whether departments should buy body cameras for officers due to the cost associated with the initiative, according to executive director Deborah Fisher.
"However, if a department does purchase body cameras and creates a public record with that video footage, they are not the arbiters of what gets released and what doesn't," Fisher said. "Our position has been that only if they are going to have footage that they agree to release all of it except for instances where there are true privacy concerns. (Law enforcement) can't just release what looks good and not release what doesn't look good."
The Gallatin Police Department should be commended for its prompt release of body camera video - even in situations that do not reflect favorably on the department. We feel the footage is important to be seen by the public not just for greater transparency, but to show the types of situations officers often find themselves dealing with and the split-second decisions that sometimes have to be made. It may not always pretty, but body cameras and the images they capture are important tools in the search for the truth.
"We demand a certain professionalism and courteousness from our officers to the citizens," Bandy said. "We're here to serve them and this helps us do that."
The Main Street Media of Tennessee editorial board in Sumner County is comprised of Publisher Dave Gould, Editor Sherry Mitchell and reporters Tena Lee and Josh Cross.