by CHRIS ROGERS
The Winona County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) might get body cameras next year. Funding to purchase a $57,000 body camera system made it through an initial round of budget cuts and into the county’s draft 2020 budget. If approved, the WCSO would become the largest agency in the local area to employ the technology.
“I think it will protect the officers, and I think that it’s the wave of the future,” Sheriff Ron Ganrude said. “I think the courts will start to expect it, and I think the costs are reasonable.” He added, “I think, generally, people say, ‘Why don’t you have it already?’”
Across the country, many law enforcement agencies are using body cameras and see great potential for improving officer safety, gathering evidence, ensuring police accountability, and refuting false complaints against officers. In larger Minnesota cities, body cameras are becoming increasingly common. Not everyone is jumping onboard, though. Citing challenges in administering body camera systems, Winona city leaders said last month that the Winona Police Department (WPD) will not be getting body-worn cameras yet.
“I loved them,” WCSO Deputy Colton Herman said, recalling his experience using body cameras while working for the St. Charles Police Department. “I had no issues. I’m a big supporter of them. The way today is going, technology is huge and law enforcement is held to a higher standard, which we should be, and it’s nice to show people, ‘Here it is.’” He added, “If it’s an officer-involved shooting or a DWI, it’s great to have that evidence. Or if you have a complaint against you, you can pull that [video] up right now.”
Currently, the WCSO and WPD have squad-car-dashboard cameras, which capture video during traffic stops or high-speed chases, and body-worn microphones that capture audio from the officer and people nearby. However, the microphones have to be within range of the officer’s patrol vehicle to work. “If you park and chase your subject down, you will eventually be out of range of your squad car,” Ganrude explained. With body-worn cameras, that is not an issue.
WCSO Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller explained he is looking into a brand of body cameras that can be programmed to automatically start recording based on a wide variety of triggers: when the camera hears gunshots, when the camera senses it is lying flat on the ground too long (indicating the officer may be down), when an officer starts running, when a holster sensor shows the officer has drawn their weapon, when emergency lights are activated on a squad car, or when an officer enters a specific incident area on a map. Police can set the system up so that, if there is an officer down or shots fired, other officers’ cameras will automatically turn on when they arrive on scene. The cameras are always capturing video, but not saving the footage unless triggered. Whenever a trigger sets off the camera, it saves video from up to two minutes preceding the event.
The technology offers opportunities for collecting evidence, but many agencies are especially interested in body cameras’ ability to clear up complaints against officers.
“It’s protection. It’s protection for the officer, and, for the citizen, it promotes accountability,” Mueller said.
“I think this will, most of the time, show that the officer didn’t do anything wrong, that they handled it professionally, and I think there will be less complaints against officers if people know they have a camera on,” Ganrude stated.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” WPD Sergeant Eric Engrav said when asked by City Council members about the WPD’s interest in body cameras. “We don’t have them. We’re anticipating them … They alleviate a lot of litigation for the city.”
“We’re not opposed to it,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi explained. There are lots of different body camera systems out there, and there are problems with cameras being turned off or covered up during important cases, he stated. “We want to do it, but we want to do it when it’s the right time to do it,” Sarvi stated.
In its advice to municipalities, the League of Minnesota Cities notes that administering the storage, retention, and release of body-camera footage will require resources. Body-camera footage is generally non-public under Minnesota law, with some exceptions. Footage used in investigations becomes public when the investigation is over. The subjects of body-camera footage may request its release. State law requires the faces of some people in body-camera footage to be blurred out. Winona city leaders expressed some concerns about handling those issues. Mueller said the system the WCSO is looking into makes it easy to blur protected identities.
A bigger issue, Mueller said, is deciding how body cameras will be used and what events will trigger them to record. “Everything is configurable,” Mueller said. Whatever a law enforcement agency wants to trigger recording, the technology can be programmed accordingly, he stated. That means WCSO leaders will have discuss what recording policy they want. “Obviously a huge part of implementing body cameras is working on your policies — when they turn on, when they pre-record — all that,” Mueller explained. Asked about what he would want to trigger recording, Mueller deferred. “A lot of that is — I don’t want to say controversial — but something that would have to be discussed,” he stated.
Under state law, law enforcement agencies have to adopt policies that address all of those issues and more. Agencies must accept public comments on those policies before purchasing body camera systems, and the government body responsible for the agency’s budget — in this case, the County Board — must hold a public comment period at a meeting.
While the body camera proposal is in the county’s budget right now, the County Board is meeting next week to discuss the budget further. Funding for the cameras could still be cut at any time between now and the end of the year.