Several law enforcement agencies in the St. Croix Valley plan to begin using body-worn cameras for the first time next year, and they want the public’s input on the policies that govern use of the devices.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office, as well as the Bayport and Stillwater police departments are all scheduled to begin using body cameras next year. Oak Park Heights police began wearing them this year.
According to Commander Andrew Ellickson, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has been considering the purchase of body cameras for a few years.
“Since they started becoming readily available, they’ve interested the sheriff,” Ellickson said.
A couple factors held the county back from the purchase, he said, including the lack of direction from the state on retaining and releasing recordings, as well as the desire to have an all-in-one technology solution that was more than a camera.
Last session, the Minnesota Legislature approved a bill governing body camera data. The county had the direction it needed and began researching options last summer.
“We evaluated a lot of different systems,” Ellickson said.
The county chose a software system from Visual Labs that turns a smartphone into a body camera, but the device also serves as a digital recorder, telephone and GPS unit, and has apps for scheduling, accessing county policies and more. The phone is military grade and sits in a rubberized, military-grade holder on the deputy’s chest.
“Basically, it’s everything the sheriff wanted, in one smartphone,” Ellickson said. “Once we found this, we knew that was the direction we wanted to go.”
With a deal from Verizon, the county received 135 cell phones free of charge, and also received credit toward the monthly fee. As a result of the credit, the program will cost $108,000 in its first year of implementation, and $120,000 each year after that. However, the county will also save $60,000 a year because it will no longer need to give deputies a phone stipend, Ellickson said. So the net cost translates to $48,000 the first year and $60,000 in subsequent years.
The price tag includes the software needed to manage the phones and data. Video from the cameras will be stored in Microsoft Government Cloud, making it easier to share video with the courts and other law enforcement agencies as needed, Ellickson said. The Microsoft Government Cloud has received the approval of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension as a secure file storage system.
While the sheriff’s office has already received the phones it will use, the Bayport Police Department is in the process of evaluating the various cameras available. It’s considering using the same Visual Labs system, but it’s also looking at cameras from Taser, Digital Ally and WatchGuard. Bayport received a grant from the Fred C. and Katherine B. Anderson Foundation to pay for the purchase of dash cameras and body cameras.
Like the sheriff’s office, Stillwater plans to use the Visual Labs system. The purchase of body cameras was cut from the city’s 2016 budget but made it into the 2017 budget. It may be several months before the police department buys cameras.
Why departments want cameras
Many local departments recognize the national trend toward using body cameras and seem to accept the devices as useful tools, both for law enforcement and the public.
“(Body cameras are) an expectation with the community nowadays,” Ellickson said. “But it also has a lot to do with public trust.”
Cameras aren’t a “cure-all,” he said, but they can help.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t want body cameras on us,” Ellickson said. “We have highly trained people. We’re out there doing the right thing.”
He said it can also help improve training.
“I think it increases transparency,” said Stillwater Police Chief John Gannaway. “So the public sees what we’re doing, you know, warts and all. Actually I think it’s going to be really good for law enforcement. A lot of what officers do well, you never hear about it. And sometimes they’re in very stressful situations and do fantastic and it never gets out there. They’ll protect the officer and the public.”
Gannaway expects complaints against officers to go down when interactions are recorded. The Oak Park Heights police department has already reported an instance when a man dropped a complaint against an officer when he discovered the officer had been wearing a camera during the incident in question.
In addition to increasing transparency, Bayport Police Chief Laura Eastman expects body cameras will also “reduce time intensive investigations that may arise and/or assist with protecting both the community and the police.”
Under the state law passed by the Legislature this year, all departments using body cameras must post a written policy governing their use, and give the public a chance to comment before the policy is implemented.
Bayport and the sheriff’s office have both drafted policies and are seeking input from the public this month. Stillwater has yet to develop its policy but expects to do so in the near future.
The Bayport and county policies are relatively similar to each other. Officers will have some discretion on whether to record incidental contact with the public, but they will be expected to record all contacts when there may be data of evidentiary value.
The county’s policy calls for data to be retained at least 180 days, double the state requirement.
One point that has recently become controversial in cities such as St. Paul is whether officers should be allowed to review footage of an incident before writing a report. Some say allowing officers to view footage could taint the report, because the report may no longer reflect only what the officer knew at the time of an incident. Some also say it could allow officers to tailor their report to fit the video.
Both the Bayport and Washington County policies would allow officers to view the footage prior to writing a report. The Bayport policy treats “critical incidents” a little differently, however.
“If there is a critical incident where an outside agency would be assisting with an investigation the officer would likely be allowed to review it after speaking with the investigative designee,” Chief Eastman told The Gazette in an email. She said the interview would occur first because a camera “can’t possibly document all the details of the incident and we would want to document the officer’s initial memory (without) influence.”
Ellickson said the sheriff’s office is simply following what’s allowed in state law in regard to officers viewing footage prior to writing reports.
“I don’t think we have a certain view on if it’s right or wrong,” he said. “We just want to make sure that we’re going along with the state statute.”
The county will accept public comments on its policy through Tuesday, Dec. 20, via mail or email ([email protected]). The public may also comment during the open forum at the 9 a.m. county board meeting Dec. 9.
Bayport will be accept comments on its policy via mail or email ([email protected]) to Chief Laura Eastman through Monday, Jan. 9. Verbal comments will be accepted during the open forum at the 6 p.m. city council meeting Jan. 9.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]