Barriers to Body-Worn Cameras?

Devils Lake Police Chief Keith Schroeder said he believes the move toward police body-worn cameras is a natural progression for his department.

"(Before) it was microcassette recorders. Then we went to the digital recorder," he said.

Next were cameras mounted in squad cars. Body-worn cameras seemed like the next logical step, Schroeder said.

"Wouldn't it be backwards not to use those tools?" he said.

Schroeder's office is made up of about a dozen patrol officers and is one of several rural law enforcement agencies in the area that equips officers with body-worn cameras, despite possible perceptions that the phenomenon is an urban one.

In Cavalier, N.D., the Police Department outfitted its four officers with body-worn cameras in October. In Minnesota, the Roseau Police Department has shared one camera among its five full-time officers for more than five years.

"I don't see why we wouldn't want (body cameras)," said Roseau Police Chief Ward Anderson. "We have cameras in squads. Why not have a body camera?"

A national push for increased police accountability and transparency has championed body-worn cameras as part of the solution.

The push mounted in the last two years amid high-profile police shootings in Cleveland, Ohio; Ferguson, Mo.; Los Angeles; New York; North Charleston, S.C. and elsewhere, with the public demanding that body-worn cameras become a permanent part of the police uniform.

Spending initiatives have followed.

This year, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded about $23 million to law enforcement agencies to purchase and implement body-worn cameras. The Bureau of Justice Assistance also launched a toolkit to aid law enforcement in implementing the cameras.

Rural law enforcement agencies in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota also have felt the push for body-worn cameras, though racial tensions between police and the public have played a minimal role, if any, in decisions to implement body-worn cameras, police officials say.

Schroeder views the cameras as invaluable in prosecuting crimes, handling complaints against an officer, and training rookie officers.

For example, supervisors are able to pull up video footage of a new officer carrying out a traffic stop and play it back to the officer, critiquing his or her delivery and giving advice on what should have been done differently, Schroeder said.

Schroder said the Devils Lake Police Department, where residents are more racially diverse, have used the cameras to refute complaints against officers, but also to confirm some complaints.

Racial tension, he said, does exist between Devils Lake officers and the public—with about 83 percent of residents identifying as white and about 13 percent identifying as Native American, according to Census data—but it did not factor heavily into the department's decision to buy the cameras, citing their other benefits.

The cameras also are likely to capture a crime that was committed, a statement made by a witness or a confession made by a suspect. That video then becomes evidence.

"It's awful tough to recant when you have your confession recorded," Schroeder said.

Oftentimes, video also gives a better sense of what happened or a more accurate account of what was said than words on a page could, said Anderson, the Roseau police chief.

"I can put in a report what someone says, but if it goes to court, then they can see which is more believable. ... It tends to paint a clear picture of what took place," Anderson said.

Anderson believes the cameras are a cost-saving tool, too. The videos may negate the need to do additional investigation or may lead to defendants pleading guilty more quickly, he said.

But the upfront costs of the cameras and the server space needed to store terabytes of video is what keeps certain rural departments from buying the technology, no matter how cost-saving or useful it would be.

"I really can't see throwing money in that direction," said Northwood (N.D.) Police Chief Stan Baker, whose department consists of himself, one other full-time officer and a few part-time officers.

Baker said his department already is having technological difficulties with its in-car cameras and with its laptop, whose operating system is so outdated it won't run some programs.

Steve Porter, of the Kittson County (Minn.) Sheriff's Department, said his department's budget is tight and the cameras could be more trouble than they were worth.

"There's just not the money in the small departments to get them," he said.

There are grant opportunities available to police and sheriff's departments to buy body-worn cameras, though they are limited. Federal funding typically goes to larger, more urban departments. A few Minnesota law enforcement officials said they were not aware of any such grants offered in Minnesota.

Several law enforcement agencies in North Dakota have been awarded funds from the state Department of Health through an anti-domestic violence grant which allows them to buy the body-worn cameras. Baker said he had not been aware of the grant, but would need to look into the grant's terms before deciding whether to apply for the funds.

The Red Lake (Minn.) County Sheriff's Office owns cheaper body cameras—body cameras can cost as little as $100, though quality cameras typically cost around $900—but is not using them, said Sheriff Mitch Bernstein. Minnesota law is open to interpretation about how long departments are required to retain video footage and the sheriff's office could create a liability for itself by disposing of video footage to open up storage space, Bernstein said.

"Until they take that gray area out and make it a definite law, we're choosing not to record right now," he said.

Several small departments, like Baker's Northwood Police Department and the Marshall County (Minn.) Sheriff's Department, don't see a pressing need for body-worn cameras, are hesitant to adding another piece of equipment to the officer's toolbox or are wary of adopting another policy to follow.

Baker said he and his officers use voice recorders, which he said are sufficient.

"We don't really have a lot of high profile crime here," he said.

Marshall County Sheriff Jason Boman, who heads a department of 12 full-time deputies including himself, agrees body-worn cameras are a useful tool, but didn't see the need for them at his small department.

"We haven't had a whole lot of instances where, 'Wow, I wish I had a body camera,'" he said.

He said the body-worn cameras can go both ways, too.

"Sometimes the media gets a hold of things and only uses the bad part," he said.

 By Sarah Volpenhein

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