Smile, you’re on police cameras; body cameras go live in Oak Park Heights

A red and green light at the top of the camera illuminate when it’s recording. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)
A red and green light at the top of the camera illuminate when it’s recording. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

When a man filed a complaint against an Oak Park Heights police officer recently, Police Chief Brian DeRosier informed the complainant that the entire incident had been captured on video by a body camera the officer was wearing. The complainant dropped his claim and walked out the door.

DeRosier believes the incident, which occurred during a trial run of the department’s new body cameras, perfectly illustrates the value of the devices for protecting both officers and the public.

On Monday, April 18, Oak Park Heights officers began regularly wearing body cameras on patrol.

The city council approved the purchase of cameras last year after receiving a $3,000 donation from two residents, who wish to remain anonymous, to cover part of the purchase. DeRosier said no tax money was used to pay for the roughly $9,300 price tag for the cameras, storage server and computer. The balance was paid by the DWI forfeiture fund, which primarily comes from resale of vehicles seized in DWI cases.

Neighboring Stillwater had considered purchasing body cameras this year but held back for budgetary reasons.

Unlike some cities, Oak Park Heights police doesn’t require officers to leave their cameras rolling for their entire shifts.

“General contact with the public won’t be recorded,” DeRosier said.

Instead, officers are expected to turn the cameras on whenever there’s a situation that might result in a confrontation or problem, or while gathering evidence. Medical calls and casual conversations wouldn’t typically be recorded. DeRosier said the policy is similar to the way dash cameras are used now.

But the public won’t need to wonder whether conversations with an officer are being recorded. A red and a green light glow on the front of the camera when it’s capturing video.

“The public will know if they’re being recorded,” DeRosier said.

Police departments in Minneapolis and other cities exploring the use of body cameras have wrestled with questions of data privacy and storage, and the Minnesota Legislature may weigh in on the topic.

But DeRosier, who sees body cameras as a natural progression from dash cameras, isn’t overly concerned about those issues in Oak Park Heights.

Unless the Legislature says otherwise, body camera videos will be treated like other government data — they’ll be presumed public unless specifically made private by the law. This has caused concern about the time and effort required to screen video and redact private information when someone requests a copy.

DeRosier doesn’t think that will cause significant problems in Oak Park Heights, because the city will charge a fee to anyone requesting a video who’s not in the video. Anyone who’s in a video can request a copy of the video free of charge.

Other concerns about body cameras have focused on issues such as what to do with video of medical calls, but DeRosier said his department won’t be recording many of those situations anyway.

Although the department is still working out some bugs in the system, DeRosier said using the body cameras has gone well so far, and he believes it will prove a beneficial tool.

“We’re just trying to get an accurate accounting of events,” he said.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]