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Body cams: There's more to it than meets the eye

This is a body camera made by Axon, the same company that developed Tasers. (Contributed)

Drafting a policy for police body cameras may not seem complex. But there are several questions to consider:

When will the cameras go on? Should they stay on when an officer goes into someone's home? What should be private and what should be public? Who will be responsible for storing the video and releasing the recordings? Should officers be allowed to view a recording before writing up a report? How long should the recordings be kept?

The Alexandria Police Department has been working through those questions for months while developing a policy for portable recording systems, which includes body cameras.

Although the policy will be ultimately decided by Police Chief Rick Wyffels, he's getting input and ideas from a variety of sources — the League of Minnesota Cities, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, police officers, the city attorney, the mayor and city council, and the general public.

"We didn't go into this willy-nilly," Wyffels said during a public forum on the issue at the police station Monday night. "We're at a crossroads now and part of the process is to bring in the community. ... Now is the time for public input."

An officer's perspective

Wyffels said that not everyone supports body cams. Some officers within the department are wary of them. He asked Sgt. Chad Schroeder to give his opinion.

Schroeder said at one time, he thought that courts should believe what officers say instead of relying on cameras. But 11 years ago, when Schroeder and another officer shot and killed a suspect who was shooting at them during a standoff on Interstate 94, video from a squad car camera helped clear the officers of any wrongdoing. The case was closed and he didn't have to go before a grand jury.

"It saved weeks of anguish," Schroeder said.

Been there before

The police department has made technological advances like this in the past, Wyffels noted, going from writing down the facts to using handheld recorders and then installing recording systems in squad cars.

But the body cams are a big step forward, Wyffels said. He added that although he likes technology and his department is typically ahead of the curve, he has waited until some of the issues with body cams have been worked out through the Legislature and other police departments.

"We're not the first in this or the last," he said. "I'd say we're in the middle of the zone, which is not a bad place to be."

Having body cameras is another tool of "getting the facts on the table," Wyffels said. They can help an investigation by showing what took place, which could either support or disprove what witnesses report to police, he said.

Body cam images aren't perfect, Wyffels said. They can make it seem as if an officer is standing far away from a suspect when in fact the distance may be much shorter.

"The camera can play tricks on your eyes," Wyffels said, adding that's why cameras should be used as a tool to enhance other investigative work in a case, not as the sole piece of evidence.

Gun cams

Bill Franzen, who is running unopposed for Alexandria City Council in Ward 1, asked Wyffels if the department is considering not only body cams but also cameras on officers' guns.

Wyffels said one system the department is considering, Axon, would put cameras on Tasers and would work in conjunction with the body cams. The policy Alexandria is developing includes both Taser cameras and body cams. Some departments, he added, also have cameras that read license plates — something he doesn't see happening in Alexandria any time soon.

Council member Bobbie Osterberg asked how the policy will work if an incident involves multiple jurisdictions, such as the sheriff's office and the State Patrol.

Each entity, said Wyffels, will have a body cam policy that applies to its officers. He added that the Douglas County Sheriff's Office has been using body cams for two or three months.

Residents support cams

Two residents at Monday's forum spoke in favor of body cams.

Dennis Arnquist told Wyffels he fully supports police using them. He said they do come with a cost but the expense could be made up if an officer is sued and the body cam shows the officer acted appropriately.

Another resident noted that he knew of an incident in another community where body cams cleared accusations that were leveled against the police department.

Timeline

The next step in the process is a public hearing at 7:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, at the Alexandria City Council meeting. After the hearing, the council could decide to go forward with testing procedures for the body cams, which could take place in mid- to late-September, Wyffels said.

Wyffels will also work on determining a cost for the cameras, which would have to be approved by the council. If there's room in the budget, a full-fledged body cam system could be implemented in 2019, Wyffels said.

Give your opinion

A public hearing about the Alexandria Police Department's policy regarding portable recording systems, including body cams, will occur at 7:15 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, during the Alexandria City Council meeting.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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